Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut

Shadowrun Dragonfall is the definitive Shadowrun cRPG experience with a meaty campaign and lots of crucial improvements.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Harebrained Schemes

Publisher: Harebrained Holdings

Release Date: September 18, 2014 (Director’s Cut), February 27, 2014 (Original Expansion)

My first real brush with the Shadowrun universe occurred with 2013’s crowdfunded release of Shadowrun: Returns. I was mostly unfamiliar with the 80s cyberpunk-meets-urban-fantasy world having only briefly tried out either the old SNES or Genesis games. I grew increasingly interested in that world and gameplay during its Kickstarter campaign (which I didn’t back at the time) and ended up purchasing and playing Shadowrun Returns right when it released in the Summer of 2013. I also cheated a bit and added it onto my then-schedule of backlogged games for Rogue’s Adventures (you can read my Final Thoughts on the game here).

Unfortunately I only had time to play the main campaign. Even at release they were new user-made adventures and runs being developed but I’ve yet to dive into any of them. Harebrained Schemes released an official expansion, Dragonfall in early 2014 that fixed a lot of Returns’ issues and added an all new, lengthier, and more satisfying campaign. It was free to those that already owned Shadowrun Returns (being part of their Kickstarter fulfillment). Later that year they released the Director’s Cut version as a stand-alone game that further added new content as well as iterating on the interface and other improvements.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut is the definitive Shadowrun experience. Aside from the actual tabletop role-playing version, Dragonfall presents the best form of playing through the wonderfully diverse and exciting world of Shadowrun.

Dragonfall utilizes the same Unity isometric engine found in many of the most popular modern cRPGs, including Wasteland 2 and the recently released Pillars of Eternity, but it’s also the most limiting and weakest implementation of those games. While a slight step up from Returns, Dragonfall continues to present mostly static maps (everyone stands around waiting for you to talk to them) and only a very specific amount of scripted objects that can be interacted with. Most of the puzzles are limited to finding passwords for a computer, with nearly every scenario and situation involving heavy amounts of combat.

Thankfully the combat is where Shadowrun Dragonfall really shines. Like its predecessor it operates on a turn-based action point system, though its scope is also limited compared to its contemporaries (Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin). With 2-3 points per character the action is more akin to XCOM where you can choose to move, take cover and fire off your weapon. Since it’s Shadowrun you get a ton of fun stuff to do, like flinging spells (both offensive and supportive), activating cybergear buffs and abilities, channeling Adept powers, summoning spirits, controlling drones, and hacking into the matrix. With a ton of varied abilities and an impressively clever AI that takes cover, moves to flank your team, and fires grenades when you bunch up, the combat remained fresh and fun throughout the lengthy 35hr+ campaign.

The single biggest improvement Dragonfall made was in your team structure and dynamic. Shadowrun Returns mostly told a personal story about your customized runner. A few story-based NPCs would occasionally join you, but mostly you hired from a pool of pre-generated runners for a fee. While it was fun to try out different combinations and set-ups, it never really felt like a team.

Dragonfall fixes all that and brings back the concept of an actual shadowrun team from the tabletop game. They’re featured heavily in the promotional artwork, consisting of Eiger the troll ex-military, no nonsense weapons specialist, Dietrich the ex-punk rocker tatooed shaman, Glory the heavily cyber-modified medic with a mysterious and dark past, and later Blitz the hot shot decker/rigger.

After the exciting opening mission, which begins with the classic run gone wrong, you’re given the leadership position of this ragtag crew that I quickly grew to love. Harebrained definitely takes a page out of other great RPG writers Bioware and Obsidian. Your crew has their own little base of operations and you’re free to walk around and talk to them learning more about their backgrounds and their hopes and fears a la every modern Bioware title.

You’re still free to hire additional runners to change the make-up of your team, but your own crew is free to take with you and they’re nicely balanced that I almost never felt the need to hire other random crew members. They also have their own skill trees where you can choose to improve from two different paths after every major mission, giving you further control and lending even more satisfying familiarity with your team.

Harebrained really does an amazing job with your team, and eventually they open up some interesting side missions that just involve them and your character. Blitz needs to score a big hit to pay off a big debt while Glory dives headfirst into her hellishly abusive past to hunt down the cult that twisted her. These character missions are some of the best in the game, focusing on particularly amazing story-telling and sequences.

Dragonfall commits the Baldur’s Gate II feaux pas of throwing up a large speed bump right when the main story is getting interesting. At an early avenue you’re forced to make money in order to continue on with the main story of a possibly resurrecting dragon. This middle section of going on missions to make money takes up the majority of game time, and while fun and very Shadowrun-appropriate, I still felt a major disconnect with the main story for much of the game.

Most runs have fun elements and quirks that make them memorable, from a powerful cyber-zombie that temporarily joins your team to investigating an abandoned research facility. Towards the end I was definitely antsy to get on with the main story, which teased the return of Firewing, a great dragon that was shot down years ago but who’s clues were mysteriously leading to her return.

The climactic final mission was all kinds of amazing, consisting of several huge areas, new tilesets and enemies and one of my favorite parts of any RPG – the chance to talk down the main villain using an extended dialogue session. It was incredibly satisfying and fun, and is much better integrated than Shadowrun Returns’ off the rails bug spirit finale.

Dragonfall doesn’t fix all of the underlying limitations that were present in Returns. It’s still incredibly annoying that you can’t manage your allies’ inventory (picking up items either goes to your inventory or your stash) and I mentioned before about the almost complete lack of puzzles and interactive objects (especially compared to the likes of other cRPGs). Dragonfall does make improvements where it can – now there are options to use your decker or your muscle in situations where your character lacks the needed skill but you brought someone that covers it. The interface is much improved and lets you see both your currently equipped weapons and your spells, items, cybergear etc with lots of nice keyboard shortcuts. Oh and you can also save anywhere now – a huge problem with the original game.

If you’re only going to play one Shadowrun turn-based RPG, definitely play the Director’s Cut of Shadowrun: Dragonfall. The meaty campaign is wonderful and the varied runs and core party members create a satisfying experience that echoes the tabletop adventure. The Shadowrun games are the perfect example of great indie games that I wish could be given more funding and time to create a truly stellar experience.

Based on my time with Dragonfall I quickly backed Harebrained Schemes’ second Kickstarter, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, which just wrapped up a few weeks ago. I’m thrilled that we keep getting these amazing little tactical RPGs, and the Shadowrun universe has become one of my absolute favorites in fiction.

 

Pros

  • Excellent and well balanced turn-based tactical combat
  • New core party members are a vast improvement over randomly hired runners
  • Fun and varied missions
  • Exciting and satisfying beginning and ending
  • Wonderfully thematic music and art style – Shadowrun world is fantastic
  • Top notch evocative writing, both dialogue and descriptive

 

Cons

  • Main Quest takes a backseat through the entire middle half of the game
  • Non-combat mechanics are still very limited
  • Still can’t adjust your party’s inventory mid-mission

 

Final Say: Shadowrun Dragonfall is the definitive Shadowrun cRPG experience with a meaty campaign and lots of crucial improvements.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Risk of Rain

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Hopoo Games

Publisher: Chucklefish

Release Date: November 8, 2013

Risk of Rain represents a bit of an anomaly amongst my backlogged games. I knew next to nothing about it when I purchased and subsequently put it on the schedule for Rogue’s Adventures. Two factors inspired my quick decision: a trustworthy friend played it and loved it, and it was published by Starbound developer Chucklefish. Say what you will about Starbound’s rocky development but I really love that company’s visual style, and they seem particularly attuned to 2D games that revel in retro-pixel art.

Risk of Rain is about as indie as you can get. It was developed by two college students and would go on to win the Best Student Game Award at the Independent Games Festival in 2014. A successful Kickstarter campaign in mid 2013 allowed them to expand gameplay features and most impressively, add an incredible soundtrack by Chris Christodoulou that absolutely blew me away with every track. Seriously I’m going to need to own this soundtrack.

When I started Risk of Rain I was completely lost. The intro clip shows a spaceship being taken over by a mysterious figure, and your character is unceremoniously dropped onto a hostile alien planet, armed only with the keyboard controls and your starting characters abilities. Note: I quickly switched to an Xbox 360 controller as the keyboard controls are inadequate are best.

I’ve played a ton of roguelikes before. In fact, a roguelike has made my Top Ten Games of the Year lists in each of the last three years: Dungeon of the Endless in 2014, Rogue Legacy in 2013 and FTL and Spelunky in 2012. Risk of Rain would have been in close contention with that company thanks to a perfect balance of time and difficulty, multiple playable characters with different abilities and an addictive learning curve and reward system.

Although you start over every time you die, like many modern roguelikes you unlock new things with every playthrough, helping take the sting out of dying and allowing each run to give you some progress. Numerous challenges can be completed like killing foes or reaching a certain milestone that unlock additional random items and characters. Items can be purchased in random treasure chests or dropped from boss monsters, most giving an insanely wide range of passive effects, such as freezing foes that touch you, healing you if you stand still and the very crucial shield that adds an additional health bar.

Gameplay is as intuitive as any 2D platformer, with a few important features. You spawn into a world as a tiny pixelated commando. A timer in the upper right begins counting up and updates your difficulty every five minutes, beginning with ‘Very Easy,’ and enemies begin spawning in. In the beginning you’ll face simple lizard-people and crabs that can be swiftly dealt with, but soon hardier and trickier enemies appear, like the imps that teleport to you or the spitters that fire a cannon shot out of their mouths. Each stage has its own enemy types, though future stages do rely too much on simple color palette switches and bigger stats on the same enemies.

Instead of giving you loot to equip, every character class has four unique abilities based on cooldowns. The commando is fairly boring with three abilities that fire his gun in a slightly different way and a fourth move that lets him dodge and roll forward. I found the first hour or so of the game a bit of a slog as the commando just isn’t very interesting to play as you rely on the same four abilities the entire time (plus the occasional activated item you can loot, but you can only carry one of).

Each stage (which are sadly not randomly generated, unlike every single other roguelike I’ve played) contains a portal that must be activated. Turning it on summons a gigantic boss as well as 90 seconds of constantly spawning enemies, creating a fun and chaotic climax at the end of each stage. After four stages (usually taking at least 30 minutes total) you can choose to go to the final stage or go through each stage again at the harder difficulty in the hopes to gain more experience and items. The final level aboard the ship offers a welcome new aesthetic, and opening each door amounts to several climactic battles throughout the stage leading up to the final, multi-stage boss fight.

Once I began unlocking additional characters the game really started to mesh with me. The Enforcer is instantly much more fun with a combination shotgun and shield. Using his abilities you have to become very aware of your positioning with the enemy and effectively time your shots. I also had a lot of fun playing the rapid-fire Bandit and the sentry turret/mine-laying Engineer.

It’s with the Engineer that I was able to actually beat the game, though with the major caveat that I was playing cooperatively with a friend at the time. Like Dungeon of the Endless, Risk of Rain seamlessly incorporates cooperative multiplayer into the action. We weren’t quite sure if the difficulty scaled to the number of players, and the on-screen action gets so chaotic in the later stages that it can be tricky to decipher just what the hell is going on – even dropping my 60fps in half during some particularly insane moments, and impressive feat for a pixelated game made in Game Maker.

While every roguelike has a fairly steep learning curve (many of which, I suspect, keep some folks away from the genre altogether), Risk of Rain utilizes it to dole out awards at a steady pace. Unlocking items allows them to spawn into the world and there’s no limit to how many you can hold (the passive ones; you can still only hold one active item). By the end of my winning run I had over two dozen various effects, and it’s fun to go through that classic RPG evolution of weak as a paper sack to god-like superhero in the space of an hour.

That perfectly balanced difficulty is what kept me coming back. The beginning when that first boss spawns from the portal you’re in awe, and probably going to die. Stick with it, unlock some items and purchase them from random chests and you’ll soon persevere, only to die in the next world, and then the next. Getting a little farther each time is addictive; unlocking challenges, items and additional characters with vastly different abilities and skillsets helps make Risk of Rain one of the best roguelikes I’ve ever played, and all that works perfectly well cooperatively (if you have the patience to set up port forwarding on your router that is).

If you can get on board with the tiny pixels on screen and scale the initial learning curve (and get beyond the lame starting character) Risk of Rain is a fantastic experience, and highly recommended for fans of roguelikes and hardcore platformers. Do and try and bring a friend or two as well.

Pros

  • Perfectly balanced roguelike
  • Constantly unlocking items and characters is a rewarding treadmill
  • Multiple classes offer vastly different gameplay experiences
  • Cooperative multiplayer works beautifully
  • Amazing soundtrack

Cons

  • Art style makes it difficult to tell what’s going on during chaotic battles
  • Keyboard controls are atrocious – use a controller!
  • Starter character isn’t very fun

 

Final Say: A hardcore roguelike platformer that rewards persistence and skill as much as random luck. Play cooperatively for maximum fun.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 21, 2013

I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns. One of my all time favorite films remains one of my childhood favorites – 1993’s Tombstone. The gunfights, the one-liners, the larger than life characters all created an indelible interest in a genre that had long since waned from mainstream appeal. Indeed to be a big fan of Westerns necessitates being a fan of classic cinema, and as a film student in college I was afforded lots of opportunities to dive into the worlds of Sergio Leone and John Wayne.

Despite a brief resurgence in the late 80s and early 90s, Westerns have become a rare breed, and rarer still among gaming. You can probably count the number of Western-setting games made in the last ten years on one or two hands, making magnum opus’ like Red Dead Redemption all the more special (Side Note: Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite game of the last 15 years).

Part of the problem with those few Western games is that they are almost all exclusively shooters, and the guns of the era don’t lend themselves to a whole lot of variety. I’m personally not crazy about first person shooters in general; I enjoy the BioShock series much more for the story-telling than the gameplay, and I stopped trying to keep up with most competitive shooters years ago (I do enjoy the occasional cooperative romp, like Evolve).

Thus I’d never given the Call of Juarez series a chance, and even less so when the previous entry abandoned its Western setting for a modern one (yawn). Gunslinger was released in 2013 as a shorter spin-off and was lauded for its polished gameplay and humorously unreliable narrator. I was intrigued at the low cost of entry, both the literal cost and the relatively short length, and wanted to give it a try.

Gunslinger tells the story of Silas Greaves, an old bounty hunter that regales his tales of adventure (and mass murder) to a table of bar patrons. Silas reveals that he and his brothers were left for dead by a gang of outlaws, and as the sole survivor he went down a dark path of vengeance and blood – which pretty much sounds like the story hook of most Westerns and video games in general.

Silas’ adventures take him to just about every classic Western location you could think of – from Apache-filled canyons to trains, steamboats, mountain passes, dynamite-filled caves and of course, classic small town shoot-outs. Each level offers a fun new location and while the graphics engine isn’t necessarily the prettiest, developer Techland gets a lot of mileage out of the vast expanses and gorgeous vistas that dominate most backdrops.

Missions are short and sweet, mostly clocking in at maybe 30 minutes. Exploration is minimal and most of the time is spent simply following the obvious paths laid about before you, dispatching waves of gun-toting outlaws and bandits. Gameplay is very similar to those on-rails light gun arcade games as enemies pop up out of cover. A concentration bar can be used to slow down the action in a classic ‘bullet time’ effect, painting targets red and making many of the more chaotic sections much more bearable.

Silas is limited to carrying his revolvers and either a shotgun or rifle. Variety in guns is not a strong suit for most Western games (though Red Dead Redemption performed admirably). Revolvers come in three varieties, letting you choose whether you prefer range, accuracy or rate of fire, while I found the rifle vastly superior to the 2-barrel shotgun in nearly every situation.

Since every game has to have some sort of RPG-like progression system, Gunslinger lets you level up and put skill points into three separate trees (with two paths each), focusing on either revolvers, rifles or shotguns. New custom guns can be unlocked and many skills help rack up the combo points as well as enable perks like carrying more ammo and reloading faster. I went with the rifle skills first as long range combat seemed like the best way to go most of the time (other than occasionally spelunking in caves).

Even on Normal mode Silas can’t take a whole lot of hits, and goes down pretty quick. I had to replay quite a few sections, and some multiple times just to survive. Many climactic moments have you surrounded by a dozen or more enemies and missing a shot or two can be fatal. A few gatling gun boss sections also leave little room for error. Thankfully checkpoints are frequent and easy; I never had any complaints after dying and starting almost right where I died.

One of my favorite features were in the collectibles. Silas can find Nuggets of Truth hidden around the world, and since each level is fairly linear finding them is pretty easy. These Secrets reveal little three or four page stories on various famous historical figures, gangs and places that Silas runs into during his storied adventures. I stopped and read every single one of them. Hats off to the developer, as they were fun and informative addition.

Of course our anti-hero ends up running into just about every famous Western hero and outlaw you’ve ever heard of. His career as a bounty hunter tasks him with taking on the Cowboys and Johnny Ringo, the Jesse James gang, the Dalton Brothers and even a climatic Mexican standoff with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Gunslinger could’ve easily painted a contrived story inserting all these famous characters and narratives willy-nilly, but I found it maintained a nice balance of homage and loving respect for the genre, and built upon the real world stories to insert Silas into them in clever and not entirely reality-breaking ways. Kind of how Forrest Gump ended up at a lot of famous events – Silas Greaves is the Forrest Gump of Western heroes.

The concept of an unreliable narrator isn’t new, but it’s used in some fun ways, including the classic “I just wanted to see if you were paying attention” moment. Silas’ stories get a little too outlandish for our bar patrons, and when they call him out he sometimes recants, and things magically change before your eyes. It’s also used to occasionally hinder or provide progress (“Suddenly, I spotted a ladder”). It’s a lot of fun thanks to some great voice acting, and Silas is a surprisingly deep character.

Call of Juarez Gunslinger is only about six hours long, and even then you could easily finish faster if you are good at first person shooters and didn’t care about collecting the Nuggets of Truth. With gameplay that’s little more involved than a light gun arcade game the real strengths lie in the Western theme, which permeates every facet of the game, from the famous characters to the tired tropes to the wonderfully varied but still thematically appropriate level design. Gunslinger could be a tougher game to recommend if you don’t know your spaghetti Westerns from your John Wayne flicks, but for Western fans and those that enjoy a more narrative-focused shooter it’s a surprisingly rewarding treat.

Pros

  • Western themes are used to their utmost potential
  • Silas’ narration is fun, funny and a neat way to anchor the story
  • Collectibles offer rewarding and fun historical lessons and stories
  • Short length and frequent location changes helps keep the limited gameplay fresh

Cons

  • Basic gameplay doesn’t evolve that much over the course of the game
  • Shotguns seem woefully inept next to rifles

 

Final Say: A short and sweet shooter that takes full advantage of its fantastic Western theming.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Cthulhu Saves the World

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

cth1

 

 

Developer: Zeboyd Games

Publisher: Zeboyd Games

Release Date: July 13, 2011 (PC), December 30, 2010 (XBLA)

My Cthulhu knowledge is rather limited. I’ve never read a Lovecraft novel nor played any of the other games. I do play and enjoy the Elder Sign board game, which is a streamlined, dice-based version of Arkham Horror, and contains all the elder gods as well as thematically dark, poetic writing and artwork.

No prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy Cthulhu Saves the World, a lovingly styled retro-RPG created to emulate the style of old console RPGs. Zeboyd Games has carved out a fun niche combining humorous, self-aware writing with 16-bit styles. I’ve previously played their later games, Penny Arcade’s On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 and 4 and based on the fun I had with them, backed Cosmic Star Heroine on Kickstarter. CSH is now one of my Most Anticipated Games of the Year, and I wanted to dive a bit into their back catalog with Cthulhu Saves the World.

This is definitely a developer that has iterated and built upon each of their releases; each game has gotten progressively better with more features, options, content and animations. Unfortunately this makes the older Cthulhu slightly worse than the Penny Arcade games in just about every way.

Cthulhu uses a pixelated overland map to walk around. You start off controlling the former elder god as he washes ashore on a beach, having all his cosmic powers drained. The disembodied narrator gently informs our hero that he must save the world and prove himself a true hero in order to be admitted back to Mount Olympus (Err sorry, that’s Disney’s Hercules).

The story and plot are mostly unimportant as Cthulhu follows a familiar path of dungeon – town, dungeon – town, picking up a colorful cast of allies along the way. Towns offer some funny dialogue and a place to rest and buy better equipment, but otherwise they’re devoid of any personality, quests or content.

The real meat of the game comes in the dungeons and the combat. Combat resembles the old NES Final Fantasy games as your party of up to four takes on brightly pixelated foes. There’s very little animation during combat and you don’t even get to see your own party on the screen, so it mostly relies on the dialogue box to move things along.

Like all their titles, Zeboyd wasn’t content to simply recreate the old JRPG systems of combat and really innovated and streamlined many aspects, such as enemies getting stronger with each subsequent round, fully healing at the end of each fight and full details on exact damage numbers for the power of your abilities and the health of your enemies. Combat’s designed to be extremely quick and extremely deadly, which plays well into the limitations of the engine – though on Normal mode in the latter stages of the game I could blaze through most fights in two to three turns, making them more of a minor annoyance than a challenge.

I found the very first dungeon to be the most challenging as I was still learning the new and interesting concepts behind the combat. HP fully heals between battles but MP does not, so you still need to regulate your powers and balance defeating your foes as efficiently as possible while still holding back if you can. A little MP regenerates depending on how quickly you win the encounter, and thankfully there are save points sprinkled at the end of dungeons (and sometimes in the middle) that fully restore your MP. Oh and you can also save anywhere (YAY!) and teleport to any previous towns at any time (woo!). Options like these prove that Zeboyd is both lovingly nostalgic about retro JRPGs while still willing to add modern conveniences that makes a return to this style much more fun than frustrating.

The majority of the game is spent crawling in dungeons. Dungeons have a nicely diverse range from haunted forests to volcanoes and even a spaceship. The level designs are mostly just giant mazes, but thankfully you rarely reach a dead end as most paths lead to either treasure chests or the exit.

Still, some of the later dungeons are just way too big – an issue they freely admit on the nifty developer commentaries sprinkled throughout. I also enjoyed the fact that each area has a limited number of random battles – once you hit it (anywhere from 20 to 50) you can explore at your leisure without running into monsters. You can still select Fight on the menu, but I never once felt the need to grind.

Enemy types are varied but for the most part didn’t seem all that different when it came to actual attacks. Your party on the other hand is nicely diverse, including a meaty talking sword, a gothy necromancer, a crazy old man healer and even a fire dragon at the end that lets you fly around the world map like an airship. Picking the right combination to maximize your abilities is a fun tool to play with throughout the adventure.

Cutscenes help flesh out the action and the writing stays fun and funny throughout, but all the action takes place in stock pictures overlayed on a black screen. Cthulhu Saves the World wears its indie budget proudly on its sleeve and while charming, I can’t wait to see what they can do with a bigger budget and several more years worth of gameplay design under their belts.

Pros

  • Funny writing that made me laugh out loud several times
  • Tons of skills and options in combat, including Tech, Magic and Unite attacks
  • Lots of varied areas and dungeon types
  • Perfect length

Cons

  • Combat is mostly crunching numbers
  • Reverse difficulty curve; difficult in the beginning, fairly easy at the end
  • Side content is limited to a few optional dungeons

Final Say: A cleverly written, lovingly retro-styled JRPG starring everyone’s favorite elder god.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Portal 2

I’ve finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts on my gaming blog, and enjoy the excerpt below.

It’s tough to make sequels to beloved games, especially clever puzzle games with an intriguing, mysterious world that’s peeled back over the course of several hours. I loved Portal when I first played it last year to kick off Season Four of Rogue’s Adventures, and now I began Season Five with the even more beloved Portal 2.

Portal 2 shoves you, the mute protagonist that might as well be Gordon Freeman (side note: I find it funny when Chell is propped up as a great heroine, she has zero lines or personality, and same thing with Gordon Freeman as a hero – both are simply camera lenses for the player), back into the massively underground Aperture Laboratory. You’re given a rude awakening by new character Wheatley, who’s eventually revealed to be the personality core you forcibly removed from GLaDOS in the first game in a funny bit of retconning.

Wheatley, fantastically voiced by the very British Stephen Merchant, serves as your initial guide in trying to escape the lab. The illusion of the lab as anything other than a creepy science prison was shattered in the first game, so the story delves further into the history of Aperture and lets us see even more of the cool behind-the-scenes machinations that were teased so effectively in Portal.

Read the full Final Thoughts on my Game Informer blog >>

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Saints Row IV

I’ve finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts on my gaming blog, and enjoy the excerpt below.

SR4

If I were to write this in the guise of a typical Steam review, it would be something like:

“Plays Stan Bush’s “The Touch” during an epic climax near the end before the hero and villain trade classic banter from The Transformers: The Movie. 10/10″

Seriously though, the quickest way into my heart is to love the ’86 animated Transformers movie as much as I do. Clearly the folks at Volition love and celebrate all things nerdy and game-y, and in many ways Saints Row IV is a grand example of today’s AAA gaming scene as it cribs gameplay elements and concepts from other successful franchises into something that’s just pure fun.

If Saints Row: The Third was Grand Theft Auto minus all the *** with a whole lot of loving goofiness, then Saints Row IV builds upon that formula (literally with the exact same open-world city of Steelport) with a layer of Matrix-style story framing and outlandishly awesome superhero powers.

Read my full Final Thoughts on my Game Informer blog >>

Final Thoughts – The Banner Saga

I’ve finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts on my gaming blog, and enjoy the excerpt below.

banner saga

Every once in a while I dive into a more recently released game in my backlog. This whole season of Rogue’s Adventures is mostly made up of games released in the last few years, and The Banner Saga is the second most recent game I’ve played and written about since Shadowrun Returns last year (which was backlogged for all of a few weeks).

The Banner Saga was part of the original wave of Kickstarter games in 2012, alongside the likes of Broken Age and Wasteland 2, and benefited greatly from that initial excitement and draw to the crowdfunding platform. It was also one of the few games I didn’t actually back (along with Shadowrun Returns, ironically) in my attempt to be choosy when picking my supporting projects. The Banner Saga was a first indie project from a new studio (broken off from BioWare’s MMO division) and the gameplay structure seemed a bit confusing.

But the hand-drawn art style was beautiful and I’m always up for a game with tactical turn-based combat – thus The Banner Saga remained on my radar for years until finally picking it up on the last Steam sale.

If I had to describe The Banner Saga in a single ‘elevator pitch’ sentence, it would be: An apocalyptic Oregon Trail with life and death choices, tactical combat and RPG stats wrapped up in a unique fantasy world based on Norse mythology.

Read the full Final Thoughts over on my blog on Game Informer >>

Final Thoughts – The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

I’ve finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts on my gaming blog, and enjoy the excerpt below.

witcher_banner

Ever launch into a game you are unsure about, and then a few hours in you think ‘Oh crap, this was a terrible mistake?’ Maybe you preserve and stick with it, enjoying some elements despite some deep flaws and annoyances, and slowly emerge into a semi-enjoyable experience. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings garnered a very mixed reaction from me, not just of the games I’ve played on Rogue’s Adventures, but of any game I’ve played.

Usually when I add a game to my backlog it’s because I want to play it (obviously) but it wasn’t quite high enough on my limited priority list to immediately play it. For The Witcher 2, my motivation was based entirely on how awesome the upcoming third game looks. I played the original Witcher back in 2007-08 and didn’t actually care for it, never finishing it.

I skipped the sequel for years based on that experience and only finally decided to dive in based on how critically acclaimed it was (not to mention a devoted fan base). But mostly, it was the third game showing really well in all its trailers and previews. Yes, I’m a sucker for hype sometimes; I love games.

I don’t love The Witcher.

Read the full Final Thoughts on Game Informer >>

Final Thoughts – The Swapper

I’ve finished another backlogged game from the excellent Humble Indie Bundle I purchased earlier this year thanks to Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts on my gaming blog, and enjoy the excerpt below.

the swapper cover

Rogue’s Adventures has introduced me to a lot of non-violent puzzle games, especially in the last year – Antichamber, Fez, Portal, etc. The Swapper is absolutely the best of the bunch (yes, I enjoyed it more than Portal, I generally prefer 2D to 3D with my puzzle games) and is also one of the few games with a foreboding sci-fi horror theme that is never actually reaches heightened stages of horror. A friend of mine put it succinctly: It’s like the first 15 minutes of a sci-fi horror film where we’re delving into the danger before *** hits the fan, extrapolated over a five hour game.

To me that pervading sense of dread and curiosity without having to feel scared of zombies or aliens jumping out at me is a huge plus, and something I rarely get to experience in games. I really don’t do horror games and The Swapper’s emphasis on puzzle solving and exploration while still maintaining its creepy atmosphere of What Went Wrong was wonderful to experience.

 

Read the full Final Thoughts over on Game Informer >>

 

New Final Thoughts – Dust: An Elysian Tail

I’ve finished another backlog game from the excellent Humble Indie Bundle I purchased earlier this year. You can read my latest Final Thoughts on my gaming blog, and enjoy the excerpt below.

Dust-An-Elysian-Tail

Video games are extremely difficult to make, in cost, time and skill. The concept of the auteur has been around in film for decades – that a single filmmaker’s work on a film was as complete and total as an author of a book, but in games it’s exceedingly rare due to the amount of work involved. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dust: An Elysian Tail was created (designed, drawn and programmed) by one man – Dean Dodrill.

Originally crafted to be an old-school Castlevania-style platformer, Dodrill won the 2009 Dream.Build.Play Microsoft Challenge, resulting in a contract to provide a full-fledged release on Xbox Live Arcade, which eventually released as part of the Summer of Arcade promotion in 2012.

I mention all this as a testament to how well crafted the story and themes of Dust are, and though every indie studio can’t secure a big contract from Microsoft it’s an absolute joy to see the auteur surface in gaming.

Read the full Final Thoughts on my gaming blog >>