Ms. Drake, I Presume?

The audience is a bit dead

After a couple of less impressive subjects, this actual weekend has been quite a bit more entertaining. Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration has turned out to be a rather mellow, if also pretty generic third person action-adventure. This time around the horror of all tombs worldwide, Lara Croft, is following in her late father’s footsteps to discover no more and no less than immortality itself. Back in the 10th century, a cabal led by the prophet of Constantinople kept this awfully useful sounding secret safe and sound from a military organization known as Trinity. They’ve been doing an exceptional job, considering that after an entire millennium the descendants of these two factions are still at it. Remarkably persistent little buggers!

Thanks to her father’s notes, Lara is quickly up to the game, and it only takes a brief stop at sultry Syria to get bearings for the icy tundras of Siberia that allegedly harbor the hidden city of the prophet and his chosen ones. Sadly, the psychopathic leader of a Trinity battalion, Konstantin, has reached the same conclusion, so waiting for Lara are not only ancient revelations but a merry mob of mercenaries as well. That’s especially bad when our beloved archaeologist loses all her gear due to some careless mountaineering and has to begin her adventure by displaying such basic survival skills as building a fire and constructing a flimsy bow.

Making use of the local biodiversity, namely flora, fauna, and mercenaries, is most straightforward; bow arrows can be crafted with sticks and feathers, ouchies heal with herbs and cloth, downed game is good for, say, larger ammo pouches, and empty bottles and tin cans be swiftly transformed into molotovs and grenades. If such an organic lifestyle or silent kills by a bow don’t hold allure, it doesn’t really take all that long to secure a traditional array of hand guns and assault rifles. As well as hunting-gathering, plenty of time is naturally spent admiring some pretty damn striking views, ascending mountainsides, making daring leaps, recovering long lost relics, solving relatively easy physics based puzzles, and constantly getting into explosive, Michael Bay -esque situations.

It’s a no-brainer to guess which series Rise of the Tomb Raider has been studying most fervently, and in more than one occasion it truly feels more Uncharted than Uncharted itself. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I think I’ll still want to see it through in full first. For now, though, the game isn’t half bad at all.

Perfunctory Pantsu

Meh meh meh meh meh…

It’s often easy to foresee that a game will be bad. Even so, it might still be a game that is trash in a good way. In other words, it could be so deliberately camp that it works for that very reason. SG/ZH: School Girl Zombie Hunter could have easily been one such silly little gem but sadly, it’s just plain bad.

That’s not to say its premise wouldn’t be good. Zombies have once again taken over the world, leaving five students of a private all-girl high school to fend themselves from the undead until a rescue team arrives. That shouldn’t be a problem at all, given that they’re armed with anything from handguns to assault rifles with infinite ammo to boot.

This third person shooter consists of short missions that are mostly served in three variations; clearing out an area of all foes, defending the home base from assaulting hordes for a given time, or fighting through enemies to reach a designated checkpoint. As per ecchi tradition, zombies getting too close will shred the heroine’s clothing and after sustaining enough damage, there’s no choice but to fight in just underwear. Those either brave or desperate enough can also ditch their clothes voluntarily; a tossed school uniform acts as a temporary decoy for all male zombies at least. Seems like death is no cure for lewdness.

All this could be fun if the production values and gameplay were there. They’re not. It’s still somewhat forgivable that the game would’ve look dated even on the PS3. What isn’t, though, is that its gameplay is just plain appalling. While it’s generally easy to move, turning is quite sluggish. Switching to aim mode means losing pretty much all mobility and having to wrestle with a camera that yanks the crosshairs so erratically that actually hitting anything is pure luck. That’s a real pity, especially when shooting from the hip only deals about half the damage compared to “aimed” shots. This would still be tolerable if it weren’t for the enemies. Not even until the game’s midway point, they turn into depressing bullet sponges that not just rush the player but also respawn indefinitely. It’s hopeless to try much anything when being constantly swarmed by 4-5 zombies that might not go down even with a shotgun blast from four inches away.

Completed missions can be replayed in hopes of a better grade or completion time, and they give out both experience points and collectible items that can be used to customize the girls’ clothing and weapons. Still, since even a bit of grinding didn’t make progress any easier, I’ll leave this one be. Unfunny rubbish.

Fledgling

Oh, the ever-so-lovable public opinion…

The past week has been a dull display of nothing at all but at least I now have a little four day mini-vacation to enjoy. It could’ve started better, though. I finally waded my way through The Silver Case, and even if it’s probably not appropriate to question the genius of Goichi Suda, his early works sure were remarkably awkward. The game promises to be a stylishly dark, dreamlike serial killer mystery but by the halfway point, everything more or less crumbles into dust. What began as a gripping story slowly and painfully transforms itself into a disappointingly pompous metaphysical hodgepodge that ends up making very little sense even for those paying attention to it. The characters and their interaction, once the most stellar part of the game, are nonchalantly tossed into the maw of chaotic storytelling, and the last few hours are pure abstract.

As well as the bloated story, the rhythm of the game is all over the place. Each location, with its day and time, is always introduced with a little CG animation that lasts about 10-15 seconds. At first this feels like a neat little nuance but since you end up traveling between various locations for hundreds of times, such scenes soon become incredibly aggravating. They’re unskippable, of course. Deliberate, almost impish prolonging of the adventure is evident everywhere else as well. You’re sent running back and forth in staircases, forced to investigate several areas identical with each other, spend time on the world’s tardiest escalators, etc. The game took me about 13 hours to play through but I dare say that with a more honest design, it would’ve been possible to trim up to five hours without negatively affecting the overall experience. Quite the opposite, in fact.

All this is a real shame, as The Silver Case also knows how to be truly excellent. After clearing a chapter as a player, you can then experience the same events from the viewpoint of the journalist Tokio Morishima. Two protagonists, both interested in the same murderer, means that their paths cross multiple times, and their individual story halves complement and deepen each other nicely. I was also smitten by the game’s way of dealing with the internet and its impact on mankind. For a 1999 release, some of its observations are now, 18 years later, delightfully current and pertinent. Also, as I’ve said before, the characters and their dialogue are awesome for a while. Thankfully the ambient, cool instrumental music keeps its charm throughout the game.

Even if I’m inclined to say that The Silver Case is just plain bad on whole, it wouldn’t be the full truth. It’s cumbersome and crude, sure, but it’s also irresistibly uncompromising in a manner that almost feels arrogant. Personally, I’ve come to prefer Suda’s later works, such as Lollipop Chainsaw and the really most dashing Shadows of the Damned, both of which strike a much better balance between his playful anarchy and being games with actual gameplay. Even as a visual novel, The Silver Case feels lacking, but perhaps mostly because the genre has already given birth to so many other perfectly impeccable scions. Maybe this one would’ve been more impressive back in 1999 but as a re-release, it’s mostly just an interesting curio by an interesting designer.

Like Clockwork

Maybe just one more before calling it a day…

I’ve pretty much run out of screenshots, yet Picross 3D just keeps on going. It seems to do that in an extremely punctual fashion, too, as after its tutorial and easy levels stole 24 hours of my life, its normal challenges pilfered another 24. I really should’ve knocked on wood after the previous status update, though. That same evening, I was almost ready to give up due to a couple of puzzles that felt just plain impossible. Still, I guess listening to your own advice occasionally works, as the very next day I managed to solve them with minimal fuss. Picross 3D is a game where banging your head against a wall is usually only good for getting a headache. Give it a little break every now and then, and the move you previously missed might suddenly be clear as day. I’ve had some very tense moments with ten-minute puzzles that didn’t open up until the last few seconds but after over 200 of them, going through them now is mostly relaxed, mechanical work where your brain kind of rests, only giving your hands minor stimuli to make them transform those lumps into eventual shapes.

Picross 3D is pleasant, too. Its controls take a little while to get used to, but the basic gameplay is solid. Pretty much my only gripe are the zero columns, which always need to be cleared out before actually starting to solve anything. At first, I removed blocks with a zero one by one, until the manual (or the tutorial, which I inadvertently skipped) told me to just hold down on the touch screen to remove an entire column at once. Still, even that style requires you to have more or less a direct view to the end of the column, so in the end you have to slightly adjust your viewpoint for most of them. Also, some of the bigger challenges have so many zero columns that merely getting rid of them all can take closer to a minute. Once you’re done with them, then make a mistake, and then start all over again… It’s not exactly fun. Sure, getting rid of all the pointless columns is an empowering start into any puzzle, but I’d much rather have a button that would simply remove all cubes obviously serving no other purpose than needing to be removed.

My other little niggle is actually more about the hardware than the game. Instead of a feathery DS, I’m playing this one on a New 3DS XL, which has a weight of 329 grams and is pretty darn heavy to be held with one hand for long periods of time. Even if the game is very much about solving “just one more” puzzle, sessions with it usually end in the finger joints of the hand holding the console screaming mercy. As a handheld, the New 3DS XL is perfectly fine for games played while holding the console with both hands but if one of them has to use a stylus, it gets mighty uncomfortable after an hour or two. Still, as the 3DS so lovely tracks the time spent with each game played, I’ll stick by it. Anyway, all normal challenges are now faultlessly done, so surely the remaining hard ones won’t be impossible, either (although this time I’m banging my fist on wood, just in case). Onwards!

Inis Is Back!

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Some of the younger people might not remember but back in the middle of the last decade, Inis was bad-ass! Their Nintendo DS games Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2, and the western adaptation of those two, Elite Beat Agents, represented the best and funniest rhythm gaming out there. After these gems, the firm ended up developing notably less interesting karaoke games for the Xbox 360, after which they went mobile. In my heart, I had already bid this once brilliant studio my sad farewell, but now it looks like they’re ready to make one hell of a comeback!

Inis has joined hands with the equally forgotten NanaOn-Sha, who are probably best known for PaRappa the Rapper, the game considered to be the first ever modern rhythm game. I’m still baffled as to why that silly game, lasting only an hour or two, enjoys such a fame as it seemingly does, especially now with a HD remake out and everything. Still, I’ll admit it was pretty neat despite its short length. Whatever the case, these two cult studios are now working on Project Rap Rabbit. At this point, all we know about it is the above teaser video and a Kickstarter page that promises a 2018 story-driven rhythm game for PC and PS4, should the funding be met. I sure hope it does, as I’m actually a little bit surprised how developers of such caliber even need to resort to Kickstarter in the first place.

…and if anyone was left wondering about all this weird Inis worship then come on, surely these were the best rhythm times ever:

Surreal Sleuthing

Being the new guy without a nickname sucks 🙁

The best word to describe this weekend is probably “perplexed.” That’s not because of three-dimensional numeric puzzles, though, but because I decided to complement that game with Goichi Suda’s debut adventure The Silver Case. During these past couple of days this eccentric visual novel dating back to 1999 has been both charming and annoying in that uncompromising way that, by now, has almost like become a trademark for this renowned video game designer. Whoever decides to experience The Silver Case won’t get off easy but just like most of Suda’s brainchildren, it sure is one unique trip.

The adventure takes place in the year of the game’s original release date, set in the fictional Japanese metropolis of 24 Districts. After a lightweight intro of events, the player ends up as a newbie detective in the Heinous Crimes Unit of the city. They’re troubled not by just everyday cases but also by Kamui Uehara, a legendary serial killer from more than 20 years ago, who escapes a psychiatric institution only to restart his deplorable deeds. The official authorities aren’t the only ones having interest in the guy, as a sleazy chain-smoking freelance journalist, Tokio Morishima, is suddenly given a wealthy contract to dig into the very character of that scumbag. So, detective instincts and investigative journalism, here we go!

The Silver Case is a game in name only. Using an extremely awkward command wheel, you choose between moving, exploring hotspots of interest, utilizing items you have, and saving. Navigating through the maps viewed in first perspective is only about moving and turning one square at a time. A couple more buttons have been reserved for looking up or down, but all this is just trivial cosmetics. There are no moments of having to make a choice, and no chance of dying, so the game mechanics are all about making an otherwise passive story into at least a seemingly interactive one.

That might sound boring but as far as visual novels in particular go, it’s the journey itself that matters. In that respect The Silver Case is… …well, at least sporadically brilliant. Even for a remake of a game that is almost 18 years old by now, it’s still pretty darn stylish on whole. The ambient, jazzy soundtrack supports the on-screen events nicely, and the game’s wild and unpredictable visual mixture of still images, CG sequences, anime, and acted FMV clips is pure art. The dialogue is even better. The characters’ lines are terse and notably coarse, but even if the f**s and s**ts fly like never before in gaming, they flow in a remarkably natural fashion. The character chemistry is absolutely stellar, and the best times are often had just following the back and forth between everyday people talking about everyday stuff.

Towards the end, all this charm pretty much falls apart but as I still haven’t finished the game, more about its shortcomings later.

Happiness through forms unearthed!

As a quick status update, I’m most certainly still into Picross 3D. As a pleasant surprise, its normal mode isn’t nearly as punishing as I dreaded it to be. Sure, there have been a couple of moments when I’ve thought about giving up because I’m just too dumb. Still, when giving any puzzle a few more goes, or enjoying a good night’s sleep before retrying something, everything is still very much solvable. That’s only natural, given that most puzzle games are never so much about intelligence than intellect. I’m still having trouble dealing with cubes that need to be separated into three or more segments but I also think the game itself is doing its hardest to teach me that skill. Overall, the game is getting a tad challenging but it’s still fun!

I Am So Smart! S-M-R-T!

I can’t help but starting to feel that Picross 3D isn’t merely a second-stringer to be played when nothing else of importance is around. Whenever I decide to quickly solve a puzzle or maybe two, I suddenly find myself realizing how time has simply flown by. I’m no longer inclined to guess, and even if those initially oh-so-generous time limits suddenly feel uncomfortably strict, making me either go under or over them by a minute or two, the game is a logic rush like none other! After a whopping 24 hours, I’ve finally completed all Beginner and Easy challenges with three stars. Merely solving a puzzle is worth one, which is good enough to make progress, but the extra stars for not making any mistakes and staying within the time limit have – at least so far – been far to tempting to skip.

At this point, the game’s most rewarding feature is its pacing. I began with “heh, this is laughably simple” only to quickly run into “oh dear Lord, is this even solvable” and eventually “hoo boy, this sure takes time to solve.” Every now and then that one single cube needed to proceed does a stellar job hiding out of sight but on whole, relentless practice truly does make perfect. The geometry of any puzzle still occasionally allures me to mark and remove cubes that are right “for sure” but such seduction no longer works; I’m now all about numbers and logical deduction. The time limit is still nothing more than a needlessly stressful feature that mostly leads to stupid mistakes and a quick restart. Then again, the frequency of those mistakes seems to dwindle as I go, so perhaps such a virtual whip has a well-intentioned purpose after all. Then again, the 3DS sequel purportedly does away with time limits altogether, and it sounds like the best overhaul ever.

Whatever the case, I’m now totally into Picross 3D. After 144 puzzles solved, I’m (slightly worriedly) off to tackle the ones under the Normal category. This won’t end well.

In the meantime, the last few acquisitions of the first half of the year have finally arrived to wait for their turn to shine come summer vacation (or perhaps retirement) days. Despite all the snide remarks that PlayStation Vita is dead, it’s still very much alive and well, the dungeon crawler slash visual novel (?) Ray Gigant serving as exhibit A and the ecchi shooter (?) Gun Gun Pixies as exhibit B. Obscure Japanese oddities, of course, might not even count in the first place but after all these years, I’ve still managed to end up with slightly more Vita games than 3DS games. The difference is negligible, though, so as far as handheld console gaming goes, it’s definitely a case of either or – preferably – both.

Chisel Work

Oh, them uncomplicated days…

I’ve spent the rest of this weekend admiring Nintendo’s marketing strategy. More than a year ago, 3DS gamers were given a free Pokémon Picross poisoned with microtransactions. Playing it was always a matter of hitting an artificial wall requiring a little bit of money to continue. Even if freemium is the worst thing gaming has witnessed, and even if I refuse to support it with a single penny, the game still managed to teach me the basics of picross. A bit later, 3DS also got a traditional, good to honest retail game, Picross 3D: Round 2. In the end, not only did I buy that one, I also grabbed its predecessor, the 2010 Nintendo DS release, Picross 3D. That’s the one that has been keeping me busy this weekend, and even if my hip is still busted, at least my brain gets a proper workout.

Picross 3D little cares about storytelling. After creating a profile, a peculiar yellow bird (…which I suppose it is) swiftly introduces you the basics. You’re challenged by a 3D lump consisting of cubes. Many of their faces have numbers that indicate how many consecutive cubes belong to that axis. Based on this information, you have to chisel out a thing or a form that will then perform a little congratulatory animation before you move to the next puzzle. The source material can be freely rotated with the stylus, and holding down a d-pad button enables you to either chisel away a single cube or mark it as part of the final product. Just going around the edges is good enough for a moment but as the challenges get more devious, you have to utilize scalpels. They allow you to dissect the lump to get a better understanding of its nature, and it’s more or less the only way to solve items that have hollow interiors.

Even ordinary, two-dimensional picross might look utterly incomprehensible, and it sure is hard to even describe the way it works in 3D. Still, you can be sure to learn the gist of it surprisingly fast. What you can’t be sure, though, is quickly turning that learning into comprehension. After 14 hours, I’m still not even one fourth through the game’s massive 350+ puzzle collection. My brains are already screaming mercy, and I’m still stuck with challenge sets labeled easy. Every so often, you get an irresistible urge simply to guess, but it’s always a bad idea. Even if you were right, you probably just managed to screw up your own logical path a bit further down the road. If you were wrong, you are usually given five mistakes until a game over, but even one mistake is enough for a tiny personal death. Should that happen, at least we perfectionists just give up and start the puzzle from its very beginning. The worst feature in the game is definitely it’s time limit. It’s always extremely gracious, but still something that annoyingly ticks away in the background. Good performances tend to be given a 5-15 minute limit, passable ones even more than half an hour. Still, even if that sounds like a lot, time sure does fly while thinking.

Even at this point, I think it’s already safe to say I’ll never be able to complete this game but what the heck, let’s see where my brain takes me. At least it should be a neat support game for whatever main project I might choose next.

Möst Wöndërfül

First some speed and then a leap into the unknown

The beginning of this Saturday has been quite jovial. I chose to play Type:Rider, which is a French 2D art platformer that was included in this month’s PlayStation Plus pile. It touts itself as a typographical video game, and it stars a happy little umlaut (or perhaps it’s a colon?) that rolls and jumps its way through mankind’s character, font, and printing history ranging from ancient cave paintings to modern day digitization. Along the journey, there are plenty of famous typeface letters to collect, including asterisks that open up really rather interesting little articles about the pioneers and innovations of the printing industry. It’s fun and educational; not bad!

The minimalist, stylishly designed stages are full of woodcuts, lithographs, posters, and typefaces. Traversing them is all about honoring the laws of physics, except when they make you curse physics altogether. The player’s two rolling dots are capable of jumping and rotating in the air but it’s quite tricky to keep them in perfect control. Inertia is your best friend but when it either runs out or there’s too much of it, you usually take a wildly spinning plunge into oblivion. Thankfully there are loads of checkpoints, and the game isn’t that challenging to begin with. Every now and then, there are also lightweight puzzle rooms where you have to free a third dot and then push it to a pedestal that enables you to proceed.

All the collectible letters can be found with relative ease, and even if you go after all of them, the game shouldn’t take longer than about two and a half hours to complete. One hour more, and I even managed to unlock all of its trophies. Those who want more can still improve their automatically tracked completion times or head to a separate speed run track that provides considerably more challenge for competitive gamers. Also, each stage has been split into four sections, each of which can be warped into via the in-game menu. In this game, reliving its best moments or practicing its slightly more challenging parts is remarkably quick and easy.

Even as a little snack, Type:Rider made me smile a lot. It’s original and stylish in a way that many French game developers seem to handle so eerily well. Sure, it’s also short and easy but then again, it never outstays its welcome, and it’s actually quite relaxing to play a game that isn’t constantly trying to make its player lose their cool. What a delightfully entertaining morning this has been!

Two Note Wonder

So adorable in stills, so brutal in motion

After an additional five hours or so, I’ve completed all songs of Taiko no Tatsujin: Dokodon! Mystery Adventure on Normal. 59 of them with a full combo, 11 others in a less-stellar fashion. There might still be a few more hidden songs but I think I’ll let them remain hidden. The song selection was, once again, a delightful mixture of all sorts of stuff, even if nothing was exceptionally memorable. As for game songs, the Kirby and Ace Attorney medleys were nice, and some of the Namco original tracks were just as silly as they were awesome. The jpop and anime picks, however, came off surprisingly generic. Then again, we all have our own taste in music, so the game still deserves praise for its diversity.

On whole, Dokodon! Mystery Adventure is probably just as comfy and familiar to hardcore fans of the series as it remains slightly more unconventional for the rest of us. The video above sums it up quite nicely. If you truly want to excel in Taiko games, you need A) a flat surface, B) willingness to embrace the touch screen , C) two styluses, and D) the soul of a drummer. If you prefer the casual, traditional way of holding the console in your hands and using your thumbs and index fingers to hit the notes, it’s a perfectly viable style on Easy and Normal but not so much on the two harder difficulties. The series is simply designed to be experienced in a way that is eventually way too fast for finger reflexes alone.

That’s actually both the main strength and weakness of the whole series. Taiko games require a unique playstyle. Eventually mastering it is probably highly rewarding but unless you dream of becoming a drummer, or are willing to dedicate your life to master a single series, it’s not even remotely as exciting. Each to their own, of course, but I still prefer an everyday eight button Hatsune Miku experience to pure two note divinity, even if the latter is bloody impressive when showcased by a skilled professional. As such, this is a game that can easily provide hundreds of hours of entertainment but it’s also a game that can be experienced in a jiffy, still appreciating its songs, replaying at least some of them just because they’re fun, and finding nothing genuinely wrong with the gameplay, either. For the sake of diversity, though, I’ll now take my 17 hours and, having once again satisfied my hunger for rhythm, rush towards new experiences.

Hooray for physical!

The game flood of early 2017 is starting to recede but while I was busy with one, two others still managed to sneak their way in. Of those, The Silver Case is a remake of a PS1 adventure from 1999. The reason for its comeback is undoubtedly its delightfully strange writer and designer, Goichi Suda. The Silver Case was his debut into the gaming industry, so it’s rather interesting to see just how eccentric it is. If I had to wager, I’d say extremely. The other game, Stardew Valley, is more or less about a single person as well. Eric Barone developed this Harvest Moon -esque agriculture RPG all by himself, and it has received nothing but praise from multiple sources. Since it was finally deemed worthy of a physical release, too, I’m definitely excited to give it a go.