Crossing Souls Review [Pixelkin]

Read the full review at Pixelkin

My generation (I’m in my 30s) has an indomitable passion for the 1980s. The appeal waxes from fun nostalgia to tiresome and cynical. Sometimes you get brilliant results like Stranger Things, other times it’s a disastrous grab bag like Ready Player One.

Crossing Souls lies somewhere in between, proudly wearing its 80s setting on its denim jacket sleeve. The retro animated cutscenes help bring the surprisingly heavy story to life, but it’s dragged down by poor controls, repetitive combat, and strictly linear level design.

Read the full review at Pixelkin

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.

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: Ubisoft

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 1, 2013

Blood Dragon box art

There was a moment late in the game when Blood Dragon’s protagonist Sergeant Rex Power Colt (voiced by 80s/90s sci-fi action hero Michael Biehn) picks up the ultimate weapon called the Killstar and yells out the opening lyrics to Stan Bush’s “The Touch.” The ridiculousness of everything I’d experienced reached a heightened level of awesome, and I let myself get completely immersed in Blood Dragon’s loving embrace  of cheesy 80s sci-fi action films. It’s low-hanging fruit to be sure, but the music, writing, and plot effectively capture the nostalgic era that the developers clearly adore. I just wish its open-world gameplay and art design were as equally inspired and interesting.

I’d never played a single Far Cry game before, and thus didn’t really know what to expect out of this well-received stand-alone expansion to Far Cry 3. The 80s homage definitely appealed to me over the modern day jungles of the main series, and the much shorter run time helped motivate me to give Blood Dragon a shot.

The adventure starts off completely linear, forcing you into a humorous and very self-aware tutorial. A recurring problem throughout the game immediately surfaces this early: just because you make fun of something and mention how dumb it is, doesn’t give you a free pass to actually do the thing. In other words making fun of how tiresome super linear and simplified tutorials are and then giving you a super linear and simplified tutorial doesn’t make it all that much more fun to experience.

There are a few times where it eschews this common gaming-parody tendency (like the surprising lack of a final boss battle), but all too often Rex bitches about doing something and you still have to do it. Most of the side quests, for example, are seemingly interchangeable “go rescue this guy from this group of bad guys” or “go hunt down this creature.” Rex remarks “blah blah kill blah blah,” which is funny and on point, but is in fact what you end up doing.

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Other than the enjoyably cheesy dialogue cutscenes, presented in tiny retro-style comic panels, the opening and first few missions are incredibly linear and play too much like a mediocre shooter. Despite its retro sci-fi setting (2007 – the future!) Rex is still armed with your basic heavy pistol, sniper, assault rifle and shotgun. His one unique tool is the cybereye, which lets him zoom in and automatically mark any enemies he sees. This reveals them as thermographic images – critical for a stealthy approach.

I don’t play a lot of stealthy first-person shooters, but the ones I have played that give you the option, I often enjoy taking that route (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored). Blood Dragon encourages the stealthy approach to the many enemy strongholds that dot the island, at least to get far enough to shut off the alarm system. The alarms are clearly marked on your map and if an enemy gets to it after spotting you, a huge contingent of forces spawns in and runs at you, making your job extremely difficult. Rex also can’t take a whole lot of hits, despite being a super-powered cyborg soldier, and can only carry a limited number of healing items. This combined with a lack of mid-mission saving definitely led to some frustrating woes before I got a handle on the stealth systems.

Thankfully I enjoyed the stealth gameplay, and the game mechancis make it fun. All enemies give off a red glowing aura, the cybereye lets you mark and track them, and stealth takedowns are incredibly fun, easy, and can potentially take down multiple foes together in a chain. You also get access to the bow early on, an ideal long-range stealth weapon. The only thing you can’t do is move bodies, so once you start killing you need to move quickly.

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The world opens up after you take your first stronghold, with the help of the titular blood dragons. These giant glowing laser-shooting lizard-dinosaur things roam the world with impunity, often getting into random battles with creatures and other cyber-soldiers. Each stronghold is protected by a dome that keeps them away, so a major strategy in taking down strongholds is to sneak in and disable the dome.

Looted cyber-hearts from enemies can be thrown and act as a lure for the giant creatures, resulting in a very satisfying and angry pet that be somewhat directed around. The blood dragons are a lot of fun, both as a useful tool and a fearsome foe, and when you finally have to take one down later in the story, it presents just the right amount of terror and awe.

Taking down strongholds is the main purpose of the open-world gameplay, as they lead to sidequests, provide fast travel opportunities, and give you a safe place to respawn. They’re also entirely optional, as are collecting the various collectibles dotted around the world (CRT TVs and VHS tapes, naturally).

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The sidequests can give a few mini-opportunities for stealth, but often I could just go in guns blazing and kill them faster than they could kill the hostage. Even with rewards doling out nice weapon attachments and upgrades, I mostly skipped them (that and two of my favorite weapons, the bow and mini-gun, had no attachments to earn).

The main story is only about half a dozen missions long and as the case with many open-world games there’s an awkward disconnect between continuing the story and just roaming around doing your own thing. Frankly the art design and level design of the world just weren’t interesting enough to make me want to explore the world, and given the retro sci-fi setting that is a hugely wasted opportunity. The mundane island dotted with the occasional enemy fort doesn’t contain a whole lot of secrets, and while there are a few variety of enemies, they all basically look and behave the same, save for the inevitable zombie-types that crop up later on. The blood dragons do add a unique twist to exploring the island but unlike say, Skyrim’s dragons, there’s no real incentive to fighting them.

Blood Dragon makes up for its lackluster open world gameplay with its fantastic story and main missions. In fact, I would recommend anyone taking on Blood Dragon to mostly stick with the main story. The comic-style cutscenes are extremely well done and often laugh out lout funny, and the missions throw a lot of unique curveballs at you that keep them fresh and interesting. Stealthily planting bombs on a dam early on goes awry, and ends with Rex taking down dozens of soldiers, helicopters, and jeeps with the newly acquired Terror 4000 (the awesome mini-gun). Holding down the fire button on the mini-gun results in Rex screaming and yelling incoherently while you fire; if that doesn’t endear you to his personality than this game probably isn’t for you.

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The story has Rex fighting back against insane rogue army general Dr. Sloan, a classic hyper-conservative, war-mongering villain that looks and sounds like General Treister from The Venture Bros. Rex is aided by Sloan’s former research scientist Dr. Darling, and she sends you on missions to undermine his control. Many of them involve large underground facilities, often with several big rooms of soldiers where a stealth approach comes off like a tactical appraisal, not unlike the Batman Arkham games.

There are a lot of fun scripted moments, like using a flamethrower to take out blood dragon eggs a la Aliens, hang-gliding your way through enemy blockades, avoiding cyber-sharks in the water, and eventually riding your own weapon-mounted blood dragon for the on-rails finale. The adventure ends much, much stronger than it started, and I found myself fist-pumping and giggling along with the game.

In giving you a smaller slice of Far Cry’s open-world gameplay Blood Dragon is mediocre at best, with a boring world and bland art style. The real treat comes from the excellent story and soundtrack by Power Glove, though I presume many of the references and nostalgic enjoyment are lost if you didn’t grow up with and adore 80s sci-fi action films like Terminator, Aliens, and Robocop. Stick to the main story and immerse yourself in an impressive and well-scripted 80s-tastic adventure.

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Pros

  • Well-realized story that hits all the right notes for 80’s sci-fi action genre
  • The blood dragons are scary, powerful, and awesome additions to any situation
  • Large open-world island with tons of strongholds and side quests
  • Fantastic synth-heavy soundtrack by Power Glove

Cons

  • Bland art and level design
  • No mid-mission saving
  • Forgettable and recycled side quests
  • Mostly boring, conventional weapons
  • First-person vehicle driving is a nightmare

Final Say: A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.

 

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Retro City Rampage

Despite a lot of frustrations with the difficulty and combat, the open-world city and 80s theming were pure joy to explore.

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: VBlank Entertainment

Publisher: VBlank Entertainment

Release Date: October 9, 2012

My generation seems especially infatuated with their nostalgic childhood. The 80s had an explosion of cartoons, kid-centered commercials and advertisements, action figures, brands, and movies. And of course, the birth of the modern video game industry.

Retro City Rampage squeezes every last drop of 80s pop culture into an 8-bit, top-down Grand Theft Auto-style city. The player character, named “Player,” looks exactly like the coiffed, leather jacket-clad silent protagonist from Grand Theft Auto III. After a fun and zany bank robbery tutorial, you happen upon the phone booth time machine from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, then meet up with Doc Choc driving the DeLorean while fleeing from the T-Team and a familiar group of green-skinned turtles emerging from the sewers wielding ninja weapons.

Retro City Rampage is brazenly unafraid of assaulting you with every reference you can imagine from that era. You do a chain of missions for the Go-Go Busters, a clean-up crew that deals in slime and goo from…er…human bodies. Shops are called “Pizza Gaiden,” “Skate ‘N Buy,” and “Toadstool Tatoo.” The local anchorwoman looks like Chun-Li. There’s a series of missions involving Bayshore High, working for Principal Balding and dealing with a familiar group of high school students. It’s a rapid fire assault with a razor sharp focus on wink wink, nudge nudge style comedy, and it permeates everything from the dialogue and situations to the gameplay and background artwork. Your love and familiarity with the 80s will directly affect your appreciation of the entire game.

The actual gameplay is very reminiscent of the old Grand Theft Auto games (that would be the first two, before they evolved 3D open world gameplay forever with Grand Theft Auto III). The city is alive with cars and pedestrians, and you’re free to assault random people, jack their cars, and run them over. Police response is fast and quite deadly if you’re on foot (they always go for the roadkill) but a handy mechanic that results in them dropping cloaking coins upon death gives a huge incentive to fight back, then run away – a concept that I would love to see in every actual GTA game.

Driving takes a bit to get used to, as all top down driving games have that same awkward driving scheme that orients your directional control to your car, regardless of which way your car is facing. I rarely had any problems driving and the camera thankfully shifts in whichever way you’re going, giving you plenty of room to adjust on all but the fastest vehicles. Standard cars like taxis and muscle cars are plentiful alongside a couple fun joke cars like the Yoshi-inspired Bikosaurus and covered wagon Dysentruck.

On foot the 8-bit game is given a nice modern day upgrade with lock-on capabilities and a cover system, neither of which I used much due to the fast-paced zaniness of most combat encounters. Dodging the little white bullets when there’s more than a few foes on screen becomes almost impossible, and often the best course of action is to simply dive into a horde of enemies using your Mario-inspired stomp attack. I suspect the developer realized how useful this simple ability was, as during the finale you get a super-powered upgrade that allows you to stomp down with explosive force.

There are a bunch of collectibles to grab: hidden packages, phone booths, and the rather funny discovery of all the invisible walls used throughout the adventure. Many of the shops can actually be entered and used to customize your little 8-bit avatar with different amazing 80s-inspired hair styles, hats, sunglasses, and tattoos. I rocked the sombrero for awhile before settling on the Last Action Hero mullet and bandanna look.

The biggest activity are the rampages. These should be recognizable for any GTA fans and operate in exactly that style: you’re given unlimited bullets to a certain gun and told to do as much damage as you can in a limited time. Some tasks get a bit inventive – there’s a rocket launcher challenge that only rewards air time from the blasts and a hover suit challenge (which looks exactly like the raccoon tail from Super Mario Bros. 3) that tracks all your stomp attacks. They’re a fun and slightly structured diversion from just free roaming chaos or completing the story missions.

Like GTA there is a main set of missions that take you through the story in addition to wrecking havoc around the city. Unfortunately any hope of getting a clever plot is wasted on a story that simply involves collecting all the various parts to the broken time machine. The missions themselves range from fun to frustrating and often open up additional side missions that can be completed, like working for the aforementioned Go-Go Busters (who’s electron proton pack gun is fan-freaking-tastic).

The final mission started out great – getting attacked by a horde of police forces with tanks and helicopters, then having to fight your way out of a sadistic murder-happy reality show. Its scope and grandeur is frustratingly misplaced once you reach the final castle area. The combat quickly gets repetitive and more difficult than fun. At one point an entire dungeon is reset with enemies armed with rocket launchers and I easily died a dozen times just trying to walk around. I did appreciate that VBlank shoved as many NES levels as they could into this lengthy finale – an underwater Super Mario Bros. section, a side scrolling Battletoads venture, a 3rd person driving finale a la Pole Position.

That driving bit at the end was just awful by the way. I never enjoyed those old racing games much as they come down to having to repeat and memorize sections, and Retro City Rampage combines that with a frustrating boss battle that fires missiles while you drive. It took me at least half an hour on this last section alone, and I was so over it by the time I was done that it really soured my entire experience.

Despite a lot of frustrations with the difficulty and combat, the open-world city and 80s theming were pure joy to explore. An open world game that doesn’t take itself seriously is nothing new to Saints Row fans, but embracing the spirit and attitude of the 80s so completely is an impressive feat nonetheless. It’s fun to grin and laugh over the classic Metal Gear translation errors. I loved hopping on a bike and playing through a Paperboy level. These nostalgic trickles work well because they’re short and sweet and hit all the right notes without being long enough to be frustrating.

 

Pros

  • 8-bit style looks and feels great
  • Brimming with 80s pop culture references and classic NES gameplay
  • Lots of collectibles and fun rampage-style challenges
  • Top down driving is fun and intuitive
  • Humorous writing that works more than it doesn’t

 

Cons

  • Main story is funny but forgettable
  • Combat with many enemies on screen becomes a chaotic mess
  • Too many story missions involve waves of foes, making combat repetitive and frustrating
  • One of the worst final boss fights I’ve ever experienced

 

Final Say: If you loved growing up in the 80s you’ll find a lot to like in this 8-bit GTA-style adventure.