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.

Monday, November 11, 2013

I'm Going On An Adventure! With Special Guest Stars: Marty McFly and Wallace & Gromit

Since playing through Phantasmagoria recently I got the urge to play more point and click adventure games. I played some when I was younger but not much since. However I've accumulated a bunch in the last couple years so I've got plenty of material to talk about. And of course what better way to justify my time being put into these games than talking about them in a review? You'll mostly be seeing horror entries in here because that's what I have a lot of (like 7th Guest and Sanitarium). But you'll also see classics like Myst pop up. For now I'll start with...

Back to the Future: The Game
Telltale Games has really been hitting out of the park recently, at least according to their sales numbers. People have been loving their adventure games, especially The Walking Dead (a game I plan on getting around to sooner or later). But I think what helped push them to the level of credibility they are at now was with this game. Back to the Future: The Game came out episodically back in 2011 in 5 episodes. The game's development was assisted by Bob Gale, the co-creator/writer/producer of the original trilogy of movies, who helped write the game's overall story. That and Christopher Lloyd provided voice acting work for authenticity. A Michael J Fox impersonator was used for Marty but the likeness is uncanny. But as an Easter egg Michael J does appear briefly late in the game playing as Marty's great grandfather. Overall the game received a pretty positive response. No news has come up in regard for a sequel.

Okay, so that's the history of the game. Now for my thoughts.
I do enjoy the Back to the Future movies. It's been years since I've watched any of them so my memories of it isn't as strong as others, also I don't have quite as much of a fondness for them as most fans seem to. Still I think they're great movies and I would still rather watch the worst Back to the Future than the best Date/Epic/Disaster Movie or whatever the hell *(those two guys) put together. Even though people have problems with some of the stuff in the movies they're all still very watchable and very enjoyable. So in a way I'm the perfect person to be approached with this game. I like the franchise, but I'm not an overly sensitive fanboy. Meaning as long as it has the same or similar charm the movies had then it can almost guarantee good times.
Well I will say good times were had in this game. If anything else at the end of the day this game was written really well. I won't say brilliant but definitely worthy of an entry in the franchise. Even though it's in cartoony polygons it still has that look and feel of the movies, bringing you right back to the 80s (if you consider that a good thing). And overall it's a very fun atmosphere with jokes that did make me laugh out loud while playing. Because of these elements it makes it easy to get into so you can see what comes next. Usually with time travel stories you never know where it's going. Also the game is very approachable from a gameplay element.
Adventure games are very notorious for being incredibly difficult due to their cryptic method of giving out clues. Some of which are so cryptic it's insane to think someone could come up with it on their own. More than likely I talked about that in my Phantasmagoria review. And I heard the third Gabriel Knight has an especially crazy cryptic clue system. In BTTF:TG however they made it much simpler to coincide with actual logic or logic within the movies. And since the movies are so popular it's easy to anticipate what the characters may want you to do instead of literally clicking on everything just to see what happens. Sadly this is also where the game has it's biggest downfall.

You see... the game is too damn easy.
Having approachable gameplay with puzzles and clues that actually make sense is one thing, but making it so easy it's almost insulting is another. I don't want to blow this out of proportion. I did get stuck from time to time across the five episodes. Nothing I couldn't figure out with just a little extra thinking on my part and use of the hint system. Still the hint system is also what makes the game crazy easy. When you're stuck you can click on a '?' for a hint on what to do next. At first it'll be mysterious, giving you a clue to think about. But you can also choose to get an additional clue, up to 3 in most cases. By the third it tends to flat out tell you what to do next. I realize part of the mindset was to not alienate people since adventure games haven't been big (as big as they were at least, which was still niche in a way) in a long time meaning people aren't as familiar with the way these games work. But when you make it that easy for the player then it's more like an interactive movie than a video game. And when the puzzles are a bit tougher it's because they're tedious. Not hard.
The fact of the matter is that I rarely felt satisfied when completing a puzzle because it was never that challenging. That and I knew I could go to the hint system without leaving the game. Google is always an option but that could be a challenge in and of itself finding the exact spot you need a hint on. But what makes all this worse is that there was literally zero consequences. The only game over this game had was when the game was actually over. It's not uncommon for adventure games to have deaths. Heck, even in some games there could be something you were supposed to do early on, only to find out hours later if you didn't do it then you're screwed and can't move on. Having to start over from the beginning. In some respects adventure games are the most challenging of games. It has always required a lot of thought and puzzle solving. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have a notepad by your side with some older games. But with BTTF:TG the only consequence you'll run into is taking longer to solve a puzzle. You can't make a mistake no matter what choices you make. You can never say the wrong thing to a person that can't be fixed almost immediately. You can't miss needed items accidentally only to realize you can't get it anymore. You can't die. You can't screw up. And this is the most frustrating part of the game. Ironically.

I will admit there were times when I felt bored or didn't want to play further simply because of the lack of stakes. There's no driving force present to keep me playing outside of wanting to see what's next. Again, like an interactive movie. A great interactive movie mind you. If it weren't for that I don't know if I would have played all 5 episodes. To fully explain what I'm trying to say I'll point this out. I decided to get back into Demon's Souls, a game that is notoriously hard but a franchise what wouldn't become more popular until it's sequel Dark Souls came out. Even though I may get my ass kicked ten times til Sunday, sending me very far back close to where I started that session I still kept moving forward. A game like that has such high stakes that you feel the urge to conquer them. The challenge gives you motivation. And it's not cheap. There's a pattern and reason. Once you master it then you're in.
BTTF:TG does not have a fraction of that challenge. And it doesn't need to be Demon's Souls difficult. It doesn't need to even be old school adventure game difficult. Just don't give a product that is so insultingly easy that it harms my recommendation. Basically if you like the movies you're gonna like the game. If you're looking for a good adventure game then it may be wise to look elsewhere or just get this one on a deal. It's easily made for the fans. And I didn't hate it as much as it sounds. I overall enjoyed the experience, but I uninstalled it from my computer already because I don't foresee playing through it again.

Now on the other side of that same coin...

Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventure
A very similar game that came out only a year earlier. Much like my last installment this was developed with all the right people standing beside it. Aardman Animations helped develop the story with additional help from Ben Whitehead, Aardman's official backup voice actor, who portrayed Wallace. To those who may not be familiar with Wallace & Gromit this game is based on characters of the same name. Wallace is a single middle aged naive man who loves inventions and cheese while Gromit is his faithful and far more intelligent dog. These two claymation characters from the UK starred in four shorts and one feature with their first short released way back in 1990. That short being A Grand Day Out. A short that was made also entirely independently with production beginning even further back in 1982. The short is 24 minutes. Sorry I got a little carried away there. They also starred in a TV show and a couple other programs but they served more as hosts than stories about themselves. What I'm trying to say is that they have a lot of history, are very beloved, and I am a mega fan of them!
Now like I said this is a very similar game. It handles the same, it has a similar user interface, and it's easy to see early versions of what would come up in the Back to the Future game. And with that said I also should point out some of the negative stuff started here. There still are no consequences other than the game taking longer to finish. There's no real way to lose which does bring down the challenge and the drive to keep going much like Back to the Future had. That and some of the puzzles were far too easy, not providing enough of a challenge or thinking. So similar issues were had here like with BTTF:TG but I still feel this one did it all a lot better than the game that would come next.

With those nasty bits out of the way. And of course I'll continue comparing it to BTTF:TG because so much is similar here. First the visuals. I give Telltale a lot of praise for the look of this game. They could have easily just made standard 3D models that are the same look like most other licensed games. Instead they really went above and beyond the call of duty. All the models look fantastic! They look exactly like the characters from the shorts. But what really got my attention was how much they looked like clay. Wallace's sweater was the first thing I noticed, looking like it really is made out of clay. Not only that but they intentionally included flaws like fingerprints... FINGERPRINTS! It's like the clay models themselves were used for the actual game. Lastly there's the choppiness with some of the animations. For the most part it runs in standard flow for a modern game. But when their mouths move and certain expressions show it has that choppy framerate of a claymation character. It looks incredible.
The next is the story which is in true W&G fashion. Unlike other adventure games of late, this "season" of the game still has for episodes with each episode being a totally different story. I say this is in that W&G fashion because they've developed as a pair who have thrived in shorts. Their feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was still great. It's just that their true home is in shorts. And each and every story is fun and creative coming directly from the minds of Aardman Animation. I especially liked the story in episode 2 when their basement is flooded so they turn it into a four season resort with a sandy beach and everything and the main goal of the episode is to make everyone a happy customer.
The other thing I felt was much better was the hint system. It is possible to toggle how often or clear the hints will be throughout the game, but it's closer to how the characters speak and how much they say that will give you your clues. There's no clear '?' that will give you a clue. You have to talk with everyone and get the clue from them, listening closely and determining from that. Not the giveaway method from BTTF: TG. It gave that stronger sense of challenge where even if the clue rate was high you still had to pay more attention and think about what people were saying to make the correct next step. This is one of the instances where it actually feels like a classic adventure game. So if you don't know where to find the correct next clue you better start talking to everyone. Still there aren't a ton of people to talk with at once so it's pretty easy to pull that together.

Can't say I have much else to say on W&G since it is so similar to BTTF:TG in many respects. From an objective standpoint with gameplay and balance I would recommend W&G more. But in terms of preference in subject matter that's what you're a bigger fan of. You may like one franchise over the other and that will determine your opinion. Either way you're in for an entertaining experience that will not disappoint... too much.

Stay tuned for more adventures!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Post-Halloween Bonus! - Phantasmagoria

Some of you may still not know that I love the FMV games of the 90s. I gave a glowing review to the Sega Saturn/Playstation/3DO game D which is damn near an interactive movie with some point and click adventure elements mixed in. With that said you probably can tell where this game is going. But here's the thing. When I was a kid my PC gaming was limited due to the fact that I didn't have the money to have a computer that would play a lot of games. Also the game I'm going to talk about I would never be able to get away with playing when it first came out.

Phantasmagoria is a FMV heavy point and click horror adventure game released in 1995. It was received with mixed praise but more than anything else it gained a lot of controversy for it's content. The game is played out with live actors with a pre-rendered backdrop. Keep in mind visuals like that were pretty mind-blowing back then. Yet I find it hard to believe people once thought having the actors play over those visuals ever looked good. Anyway, the game is pretty intense at parts with the content. It includes scenes of intense violence, creepy as shit visuals, and even a rape scene. If you want to see the crazy possible deaths then just go to youtube and do a search. There all there. The game was only released on PC in the states and it came on a whopping seven discs because of all the FMV. A lot of discs for one game at the time. However when the game was ported to the Sega Saturn in Japan (under the name Phantasm) it came on frickin EIGHT DISCS! Can you imagine bringing home a game that has that much swapping? And if you know what's going on or can figure out the puzzles easily it would only take a few hours to complete. Not like this is a mega huge RPG like the four disc long Final Fantasy IX for Playstation. And I thought Riven was big for having five discs.
So with it being an FMV adventure game there are two main elements. The visuals and the puzzles. One being much stronger over the other in this case. Let me say that I love the visuals in this game. I am a huge fan of early 3D modeling because it has it's own unique style. I would sometimes play through games like Myst just to look around at the visuals. So when I got to journey through this AMAZING, BEAUTIFUL (in my mind) mansion I was loving it. Couldn't stand having the digitized person walking all over it but that's beside the point. I'll get to that a little later. But this mansion is amazing. It was previously owned by a famous wizard with a FUCKED UP past that we slowly learn about throughout the game. The dining hall, master bedroom, even the attic is massive. Also since he was a performer he has his own theatre built in. Not only do I love how expansive the mansion is but also I love how creepy it feels. There are room that are essentially abandoned or full of old storage this wizard used to own when he was alive. It gives a really unsettling vibe wondering what the story is behind each room and item. A lot of mystery is present throughout, a lot of which is sadly never answered. But the fear of not knowing is always the best!
Now the puzzles are where the game has it's shortcomings. The game is split into seven chapters. How much time you will spend on each will depend how quickly you can figure out each puzzle. Maybe with the exception of the last chapter. Something I want to talk about in full at the end of the review. Now one area I'm thankful is the fact that this game's puzzles aren't as bass ackwards with it's logic like other adventure games. If you need a reference look up the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game. That has some really messed up logic. But with all the video the game is limited in what it can do and where it can go. Making the puzzles pretty simple for the most part. There were a few times when I looked up a walkthrough for assistance because I did get stuck. Still, before I did that I would always refer to the hint section of the game which provides anywhere from cryptic clues to flat out telling you what to do. In the end I didn't play this game for the puzzles, really, I came in for the horror aspect. I wanted to see what sort of crazy story this game would come up with.
Man oh man is this story bonkers. So I briefly touched on the magician who used to own the mansion. Well in typical horror fashion the magician wound up going crazy and killed a bunch of people. This is something we see full on in flashbacks. Two scenes in particular that stand out are pretty intense. One is where he has a victim bound to a chair with a blade pendulum attached that swings down and slices directly through their face. Gory as hell. The the other one the magician has his victim strapped down to a table and is force feeding them raw human flesh and guts. Literally stuffing them so full it chokes and kills them. Again, rough. And so as the mystery unfolds about this magician you learn about his involvement with the dark arts as one would expect. But again I'll talk about that in a little bit when I walk you through chapter seven. It's just that between those flashbacks and everything else that's disturbing brought up in this game, it gives great atmosphere. The tone and atmosphere is excellent, giving a very creepy vibe. Between the (un)intentional creepy visuals using the early 3D rendering they had along with the type of "Spirit" music (as I like to call it). Meaning disturbing music usually associated with the creepiness of demons and the antichrist, ala The Omen or The Exorcist. Very orchestral with a choir singing something terrifying in Latin. That sort of music that is both beautiful and haunting. And with the very rough around the edges visuals with the digitized characters it does provide a great experience overall if you let yourself fall down the 1995 rabbit hole. Even if your lead character dressed in black mom jeans and horrible long sleeved orange shirt.

Okay, okay, okay, chapter seven. One thing not seen often in these point and click adventure games is action sequences. Usually the games are all about your wits on figuring out where to go next, not necessarily how fast you can do it. Well all of chapter seven is an action sequence where you need to make split second decisions to save your life. Remember that this is the end of the game so spoilers. One thing that's been happening alongside discovering more about the magician is that your character's husband has been going insane much like the magician. And what was discovered with the magician is that he called on a demon from hell to grant him powers. So it's pretty clear that demon is now in your husband. Anyway he kept getting worse and worse as the game went on and by chapter seven he is flat out nuts literally trying to kill you. He eventually traps you in the same chair with the pendulum blade the magician previously used as a murder weapon, wherein you distract your husband and kill him with said blade. As he dies the demon previously called rises up to attack you.
Let me stop for a second. This demon looks crazy. It looks like someone was trying to render the South Park version of Satan, colored him blue, and then gave him a snail like tail instead of feet with slime trailing after him to boot. It's a strange design that I don't get and I actually find to be one of the lesser creepy things in this game. It just tries too hard.
So this demon starts following you to the cellar. However you are able to stop him dead in his tracks with a wooden door. I shit you not a wooden door. Your character then needs to run down to an altar where you perform a ceremony to send the demon back to hell. It takes a long enough time and really bugged me how long it took for the demon to break through. Still the whole thing can feel very tense and you can watch this playthrough (The demon stuff starts 14 minutes in) so you can get a full sense of what's going on.
The game ends when you are able to defeat the demon wherein you walk off the property. Followed by some of the worse ending credits music I've ever heard in a video game.

It may sound like I didn't like that last chapter. Parts of it I definitely did. It was tense when a lot of the game is spent running around trying to find the next piece to a puzzle. It's where that AMAZING soundtrack kicks in high gear. And if you fail it gives you some of the best gore in the game. Almost hard to avoid winning just so you can see the crazy kills (for example, the demon literally tears your face apart). I'm not crazy about how the game ends but really I don't play games or watch movies for the endings anymore. In any story there are only so many directions you can go so I make it about the journey. And the journey is fun and unique. So if you're into point and click and don't mind some very mature rated content then you're in for a ride. Just try and get past the very poorly aged visuals (which I love!) and terrible acting and I think you'll enjoy it.

And as I finished off the game I was saddened because the experience was over. Thankfully I still have a few other unique titles like this on my computer. Immediately following this playthrough I started up Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh. It has no connection in regard to story or characters but it is similar in theme. There were plans for a third game but it never happened. Still it plays in a similar fashion but with a production value upgrade (sadly no more pre-rendered design. They use real sets) and more of a somber presence instead of the classical style of horror the first game had. After that I will be playing through the other semi-popular point and click horror adventure game The 7th Guest with it's sequel The 11th Hour shortly thereafter. Now I guess all I need is to get my hands on Harvester and it'll be a bombastic end to a horror game marathon! Hopefully it'll be on GOG or Steam eventually since I've had trouble in the past installing old games from their original discs on my newer computer.

...Seriously, Harvester is the most insane of them all... look it up.