City of Angels v1.1

Truth by pantsu

While still enduring an aching back and waiting for the second MRI this year, everyday life is about as dark as the weather. These past few days my current mood has been nicely complemented by L.A. Noire. Its equally dark, cynical and harsh film noir world got remastered for the current console generation. While the improvements are mostly superficial, what worked in 2011 seems to work well even six years later. The story of Cole Phelps, a decorated WWII hero, follows his rise from an ordinary LAPD patrolman to the ranks of the most hard-boiled of detectives in 1947 Los Angeles. It’s a journey not without some quirks and annoyances but on whole, this is still a stylish and entertaining sandbox.

The main distinguising feature of the game are its interrogations of witnesses and suspects. By studying their expressions and body language, Phelps has to determine if their statements are true, doubtful, or outright lies that can be contested with evidence gathered during investigations. It’s a pretty novel and fun idea that always suffered from the hit and miss nature of interpreting the expressions correctly. It was never easy to determine exactly how the fairly hot-tempered Phelps would react to the selected choices. In this version, terms truth and doubt have been replaced with good cop and bad cop but that obviously doesn’t help much. The interrogations do provide a nice brain workout but it’s still deceptively easy to have a hunch and then double check the internet to ensure that it’s the correct one.

If L.A. Noire has been given a new lick of paint, it’s not particularly conspicuous. Despite additional makeup the game still looks somewhat dated and the streets of what is supposed to be a thriving metropolis often uncomfortably desolate. Luckily the cars, billboards, and landmarks of the era were originally modeled with such piety that merely cruising around aimlessly while listening to jazz and old radio plays is still delightful. Sadly the division between the main story and an actual sandbox has remained the same. While GTA style games often advance by driving to story markers on the map, L.A. Noire ushers Phelps from one story case to the next. Proper free roaming is only available after the man has solved enough cases to earn a promotion to a new division, and even then the free mode has to be separately activated by quitting back to the main menu.

Another nuisance that really should have been fixed is the inability to skip cutscenes. It’s hardly an issue the first time around but it’s not until a case has been concluded that the player finds out exactly how many pieces of evidence they missed, how well the interviews went, and how much damage they caused while driving carelessly around the city. Those aiming for perfect five star performance reviews probably have to redo a case or two, making it quite annoying to go through the same motions and cutscenes all over again. Even many of the action sequences are preceded by little intros that have to be watched after each failed attempt. That’s not to say L.A. Noire would be a particularly challenging game but especially in firefights, leaving cover is so awkward that Cole is often subject to some pretty cheap hits.

Those interested in collectibles will find that even if there were already plenty in the original release, there are even more in this remaster. Driving each of the 95 unique vehicles in the game is still a genuinely entertaining challenge but all sorts of film reels, badges, novels, and records are just the sort of pointless little trinkets that one usually bumps into only by accident or with a guide.

Despite the minor issues that really could have used fixing, L.A. Noire is still well worth a second go. It’s a gritty crime drama with easily 30 hours worth of content, and its depiction of the post-war 40s is highly versatile, credible, and enjoyable. Sure, the game’s world is strikingly gruff and unabashedly sexist but then again, that’s what high-class film noir is about. It’s really a pity that the game ended up being its developer’s only production as even with its faults, it remains a refreshingly original take on the sandbox genre.

Last week’s Black Friday came and went without much ado in this household. Good game deals in particular were hard to come by. In the end, I only grabbed a modest pile of PS4 releases that mostly fall into the “I suppose there’s no harm trying” category. Still, the fivesome of Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition, The Last of Us Remastered, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and The Walking Dead: A New Frontier were all under twenty euros each, a price point that usually makes me bite if I’m going to bite at all.

Loot Math

The grim reality as boring bars

Now that EA and Star Wars Battlefront II with its microtransactions and loot boxes has gotten pretty much everyone riled up, I decided to do a bit of investigative journalism. As everyone is probably aware already, loot boxes could be considered a game mechanic but that is only a disguise to skin children and imbeciles of whatever money they might have left after buying the game itself. This questionable practice involves random rewards in random boxes with odds so low that impatient players might very well be tempted to get them with money rather than by playing.

Massive corporation greed isn’t exclusive to EA, though. Bandai Namco, too, is well-versed in this unholy dark art of leeching. As a demonstration, I’ll use The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, which many will probably remember from last summer’s blog entries. After considerable grinding, I left the game missing just one stage costume. Sadly, it’s one that is hidden away in a random loot box. Luckily, however, it serves as a perfect way of highlighting what the recent fuss about loot boxes is all about.

The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars is based on live performances that reward not just money and experience, but also random presents. A single live takes about four minutes to complete, and after I had done a statistically nice amount of them, 200 to be exact, I got a much better understanding of what odds are involved in trying to get that one last costume into the wardrobe.

The graph in this article shows the madness of the scheme. Each bar represents ten lives and the presents I got out of them. 67% of the lives go unrewarded altogether, 18% result in a bronze present, 14% a silver present, and mere 1% a gold present. No points for guessing which kind of those hold the costume I’m missing. It get considerably more tragicomic when you consider there are ten different gold presents. So, should I get lucky enough to even bump into one, I still have only a 10% chance of actually scoring what I want. Or, to turn it around, every four minutes I have a 99.9% chance of not getting the costume. No wonder that I haven’t seen it despite 200 hours and 1800 lives played.

Now, if I was peeved AND enjoyed both loose money and a full frontal lobotomy, I’d probably just go to the marketplace to buy my way to happiness. One present costs 100 yen but a hundred of them go for as “low” as 8000 yen. At today’s exchange rates, that’s a price range from a bit under one euro to 60 euros. It took me about 13 hours to play those 200 lives and amass 66 presents in the process. Converted into cash, that means about 40 euros. If I was a corporate-loved whale who went with the most expensive hundred present deal, the odds involved would mean it contains maybe 3-4 gold presents. Or, in other words, sixty euros for four chances of guessing a number between one and ten. Yay!

Naturally, I’m such a stingy gamer that I rarely buy even an entire game digitally, let alone downloadable content or, heaven forbid, loot boxes. Still, these numbers probably explain why the business model works. It takes a special kind of stupidity both to pay and choosing not to pay. I suppose I’ll eventually play my way to that last costume simply out of sheer tenacity but hopefully this at least works as a cautionary example of the kind of cancer loot boxes represent.

Child of Excess

Seems like it’s occasionally possible to get lucky. When Ubisoft’s slightly more artsy 2D-platformer-RPG Child of Light enjoyed publication and positive reception more than three years ago, it always felt like something that might be fun to try. That never happened, mostly due to the game never getting a physical release (well, it kind of did but a cardboard box with a download code is essentially nothing more than a cardboard box.) While the game never got my money, it was included in the pile of PlayStation Plus games for this September. This gave me a swell chance to see exactly how notable a gem I had been sitting out on for all this time. After a begrudging playthrough of about eight hours, I can’t help but say I didn’t seem to miss much.

In the game, a red-haired princess Aurora whizzes all around the magical kingdom of Lemuria together with firefly fairy Igniculus. While at it, they befriend a ragtag bunch of other adventurers and apparently get tangled into a family drama of some sort. Something along those lines, as the story is something I ended up skipping altogether due to it being told in verse. All narration, character dialogue included, has been forcibly adapted into awkward rhyme that flows as fluent as sludge in tar, bending the story into a shape so painful to follow that after ten minutes it becomes nothing more than drivel to fast-forward through.

That same ten minutes is all it takes for the initially promising Metroidvania-esque world to fall apart. Aurora, only capable of jumping at first, is almost immediately gifted with a magical ability to fly, wrecking half of all the joy of exploration and discovery there could have been. The other half is immediately wrecked by the most egregious display of Ubibloat™ there is. It’s nigh on impossible to go for 15 seconds without bumping into a treasure chest or a shoddily hidden cavern of goodies. What’s worse, almost every turn-based battle causes the characters to level up and earn skill points for their pointless ability trees. The game is like an ADHD patient’s dream come true with constant rewards so ridiculously frequent that in the end, nothing ends up feeling anything at all.

Granted, Child of Light is remarkably beautiful and even more remarkably well-animated. Heck, actually criticizing it in any way feels like kicking a puppy. Still, no can do. When something doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work. If the game had a more conservative method of storytelling and a world at least remotely worth exploring, it might’ve enjoyed a bit more scrutiny than this. As it stands, it’s only worth these four shoddy paragraphs.

This might have been a miss but in the meantime, four potential homerunners have joined the ranks. Of those, L.A. Noire is most likely the safest bet, given that it’s a remaster of a game that was already most enjoyable on the PS3. It’s certainly worth revisiting, especially as the PS4 version includes all the DLC (yup, I rather buy the entire game again than spend a dime on additional digital content.) As for NIS America, there’s two awfully promising sequels. Demon Gaze II is continuation to what I still consider one of the best dungeon crawlers ever while Nights of the Azure 2: Bride of the New Moon capitalizes on the positive aftertaste left by its predecessor not more than a month ago. I’m also slightly excited about Taiko no Tatsujin: Session de Dodon ga Don! which, with its drum controller, gives me the first chance to play Taiko games the way they probably should be played.

Peace and Love

Hey, that’s not how exploring NPC houses in RPG villages is supposed to work!

While frolicking in mud, I have also managed to pay a visit to a popular underground world. Now that Toby Fox’s breakaway indie hit from a couple of years back finally got a physical console release, it was due time to check out why Undertale enjoys such a widespread fame. Obvious straight from its pixel art intro, it’s a game that pays homage to the wonderful JRPGs of the SNES era. Its premise is as delightfully shoddy as one could expect; humans have once again fought a long battle against monsters that were eventually sealed deep underground. Life is once again peaceful and harmonious. One day the player, a young rascal, ventures into the caves of a nearby mountain, trips and falls into a deep chasm, and ends up in the secluded region of scary monsters. It would be really nice to get back home, but the journey is a long and perilous one, and the first monster encountered makes it absolutely clear that this is a bleak world where one’s fate is either to kill or be killed.

Or is it? The game’s slogan is “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die” and sure enough, what first seems like an uninspired and crude ugly duckling of an RPG ends up transforming into quite an original and emotive little charmer. While traipsing along the corridors of this new dark world, the hero bumps into increasingly peculiar monsters that can be fought in a normal fashion. Battles are turn-based and require a swaying hit meter to be stopped in the center of the screen for most damage. Victories are rewarded with money, experience points, and leveling up just like one would expect.

A more thoughtful player can, however, resolve conflicts by resolving to diplomacy rather than violence. By trying out all sorts of unconventional acts like complimenting, encouraging, or even hugging the foes, the hero can try to make them lose their will to fight and then spare them. While figuring out what works, the only way to defend oneself is to move the player’s soul, represented by a little red heart, away from adversaries’ bullet hell -esque attacks. Easier said than done, especially as pacifism leads to zero experience points gained, meaning that those choosing nonviolence are expected to complete the game eternally stuck as a level one character. No matter the approach, game overs tend to happen but thankfully save points are rather frequent.

Giving prominence to deliberately coarse pixel art but also exceptionally good and varied retro music, the game draws particularly heavily from HAL Laboratory’s SNES classic Earthbound. Undertale is an adventure that aims to charm with pure weirdness. While getting into the bottom of the origins of the feud between humans and monsters, the player bumps into increasingly more peculiar characters, locations, and situations. The path is beset by intentionally crappy puzzles, even crappier puns, and plenty of laughing at all sorts of RPG clichés and, exclusive to the PlayStation version, trophies.

Even if the journey progresses as a tight tunnel, it also features plenty of depth. Many scenarios adapt not only to the general approach of the player but also to the items they carry or the way they have acted in the past. The humorous story that eventually also plucks some emotional strings lasts about six hours and remains highly entertaining throughout. While it’s easy to miss out on some things, the epilogue is kind enough to tell what might still be worth trying, so reloading the final save and doing a bit of backtracking can still provide an hour or two of equally enjoyable post-gaming of sorts.

While Undertale is innately quite niche and mimics Earthbound a bit too blatantly for its own good especially towards the end, it’s still a game that worked well in this gaming household, too. It challenges established RPG conventions in a creative and amusing way, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and is full of just that sort of eccentricity that appeals to players who are broad-minded or simply prefer their experiences a bit different. Jolly good show, Toby, jolly good show!

I’m a Lumberjack and I’m Okay

The most fun I’ve ever had with my mud pants on!

Well, technically I’m not okay as I’ve entered my sixth week of an aching back (or rather, hip). No can do but endure and be physical virtually. These past few days I’ve turned into a rugged expert of Russian backlands, making my living driving heavy equipment and hauling logs from seemingly impossible places to local lumber mills. I am, of course, talking about Spintires: Mudrunner, which has already provided several hours of amusing, slow, and challenging driving. It focuses on crude but extremely durable Russian jeeps, trucks, tractors, and special vehicles that crawl around six relatively large maps in circumstances that could best be described as catastrophic.

As the name of the game implies, most of the roads there are have already been driven to near extinction. They’re incredibly wet and muddy, and carefree drivers will soon find themselves stuck for good, should they not have already managed to roll over their vehicles or have them die in the middle of flooding rivers. Odds of survival in these harsh conditions can be improved by engaging all-wheel drive or enabling differential lock, but these make the remarkably thirsty vehicles guzzle even more gas. If the tires still fail to find adequate grip, there’s no choice but to seek a good place to attach the in-car winch and pull oneself out. If even that fails, it’s time to hop into another truck, go towing, and pray earnestly that it doesn’t lead to two stuck vehicles.

Spintires: Mudrunner is both aggravatingly and lovably ruthless. The player usually starts from their home garage with nothing but a crummy jeep and one truck, expected to get some work done without even a proper map of the surroundings. By driving to nearby watch towers, the map opens up to show all the little, twisty roads and trails available. Even then, a sensible player will next proceed to activate all the extra garages and vehicles strewn around the map. Not only are garages invaluable for fueling and repairing possible damage, they are the only places where vehicles can be altered to serve a different purpose. For hauling the smallest of logs, a truck only needs a basic carriage whereas longer logs require logging trailers. If a vehicle breaks down or runs out of juice in the middle of the woods, a suitable tank or container can be installed to deliver gas or parts. Even unlocking new garages requires their own delivery of tools and a semitrailer. These careful preparations alone can take up considerable time and effort.

Once all the vehicles and garages on the map have been activated, it’s much safer to get to actual work. Merely driving to any of the handful of log stations can be a challenge. Once there, casual mode only requires a press of a button to load the truck but the vastly more entertaining hardcore mode requires the player to do it manually, provided a tractor capable of loading is around or the truck has also been equipped with a crane. The insanely heavy load then has to be driven to either of two afar lumber mills, both requiring at least two deliveries to be satisfied. Unloading, thankfully, happens automatically; a huge relief as the trips can get very stressful and take closer to an hour to complete.

Things never get dull as there’s constantly so much to take into consideration. Is there a chance of running out of gas? Are vehicles capable of loading where they should be? If a trail was durable last time around, is it still safe for one more go? Which vehicles should serve which purpose at which point? Where is safe to turn around if need be? Which vehicle can help another in trouble and in which way? This kind of thinking is strangely enjoyable, especially when things rarely go quite as initially planned. Nothing is more exhilarating than making a truck that got seemingly hopelessly stuck twitch forward even a meter or two, and nothing more aggravating than coming to a conclusion that it’s probably best to just restart the entire map from the very beginning. After more than 16 hours I’ve only completed three of the six work sites in hardcore mode, so look forward to more prattle about this wonderful oddball in the future!

Not My Sky

Ummm… Yes?

Since I’m always so fashionably up-to-date with my gaming, I recently dwelled into something as fresh as No Man’s Sky. Smitten by hype, I bought the game on its release day almost a year ago, but back then it only managed to entertain for a couple of hours before getting shoved to the back of the shelf. This past year Hello Games has updated its space epic several times, so I decided to see if version 1.38 at least would make this space charting adventure even remotely meaningful. After about 40 hours played, I sadly have to state that this still isn’t the case.

A new game dropped me off on a planet that was almost 750,000 light years away from the artificial goal that is the very center of the universe. After fixing up my dilapidated spaceship using resources gathered with my trusty handheld mining laser, it was time to bid the dusty planet goodbye, launch to its orbit, and start heading out to new and wondrous galaxies. Surely a grand adventure, if only the game remained fresh and surprising. However, once you’ve seen one planet and one star system, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

Each star system consists of a space station and a random number of planets and their moons. On space stations, the player can chat with aliens belonging to three different species, do galactic trade with items and resources, and take on missions rewarded with credits. They include both skirmishes with space pirates as well as various tasks to be done on planets, ranging from repairing broken equipment and locating missing persons to scanning flora or exterminating fauna. When it feels like you’ve seen and experienced everything the system has to offer, various resources can be combined to construct a warp crystal that enables travel to the next star system where… Well, it all begins anew.

The updates have made it possible to create a home base on certain planets, one that can be expanded with a myriad of corridors, rooms, and research stations for which personnel can be recruited from space stations. Also, if slowly walking around planets becomes a chore, the game now features a drivable Exocraft that can be built by developing the home base accordingly. Several light years will, of course, soon separate an avid star traveler and their home base but every space station has a portal that can be used for a quick return. Those into masochism can also challenge the game in a noticeably harder survival mode or even with permadeath enabled.

Despite these little new features, No Man’s Sky remains just plain boring. Its 18 quintillion randomly generated worlds with their randomly generated plants, animals, and habitats are visually distinct but identical in content. The gameplay is insipid repetition of jumping to a new star system only to gather enough resources for yet another warp crystal. The initial ship is only capable of making pathetic jumps of a hundred light years, and even if sporadic wormholes can be used to cover distances 15 times longer than that, it would still take remarkable devotion to reach the center of the universe. Some fun could be salvaged from improving one’s spaceship, spacesuit, and weapon, or trying to learn the languages of the three alien species one word at a time, but No Man’s Sky is still very little else than a humongous bowl of oatmeal that turns all too familiar after a single spoonful. Its platinum trophy only requires hitting an unimaginative and equally repetitious collection of milestones but as for reaching the center of the universe, it never feels like worth the considerable effort.

Thankfully, there’s never a shortage of alternatives. This has been another week of all sorts of interesting releases finding their way to a new home. The visual novel Chaos;Child promises psychological horror, Spintires: Mudrunner is all about big, clunky vehicles challenging impossible terrains, Undertale is supposedly a rather eccentric but also very well-received indie RPG, and Yomawari: Midnight Shadows goes for scares in chibi style. All in all, another jolly and varied late autumn as far as games go!

Bumbling Bunny

Ohcrapohcrapohcrap…

Sigh. As my back is on its fourth week of hurting, things aren’t looking particularly bright. The same goes for gaming, as the deceptively cute-looking Rabi-Ribi turned out to be an absolutely brutal bullet hell platformer. It features a story, even if it’s not much. A perfectly ordinary bunny, Erina, wakes up on a mystical island of Rabi Rabi, having transformed into a genuine bunny girl. Weird. She really misses Rumi, her master, but perhaps she could be found somewhere on the same island. At first, Erina is only capable of jumping but her chances of survival soon improve as she acquires a delightfully sturdy Piko Hammer. Soon after, she meets Ribbon, a little fairy capable of shooting magical projectiles. With these offensive moves, the duo is more than prepared to explore Rabi Rabi in true Metroidvania style, constantly bumping into hidden new skills, island inhabitants, and countless immensely chaotic boss fights.

It’s quite obvious from the very beginning that Rabi-Ribi is pure hardcore. All the bigger fights are hectic frays in which the player has to constantly dodge impressive attacks that often seem impossible to avoid, all while trying to spot openings for counter-attacks. In the middle of all this panic, the player also has to mind stamina that wears out with every attack made by Erina or Ribbon. Once it runs out, there’s no choice but to back off a little and wait for the meter to recharge. Erina also has an amulet that, for a limited number of times, grants her brief invulnerability. It is naturally only meant to be used for enemy attacks that are simply so massive that they cannot be avoided. Reacting to such times has to be instinctive, though, so the game requires a bewildering amount of skill, practice, and memorizing.

Erina’s adventure makes her stronger, too. The world contains dozens of vials that improve her attack, health, stamina, and its regeneration speed. As well as acquiring entirely new moves, Erina can also find badges that give her various beneficial buffs. If (when) even these items are not enough to help, players can always bin their self-respect and switch to a casual mode. That ensures that even us less-gifted individuals can enjoy the game, finding joy mostly in discovering all the stuff hidden around the various areas of the island.

Rabi-Ribi is quite vast. After 16 hours of playing, I still haven’t completed it fully, even if the closing credits have rolled twice and the map already shows a character that would activate NG+. There are all sorts of epilogues and extra chapters providing more and more to find and challenge, so this is another game I refuse to consider played through quite yet. Then again, I’ll probably leave it unfinished as some of its collectibles are apparently missable. The game also ramps up its already sadistic difficulty towards the end, often requiring pixel perfect jumps and seamless connection of moves that really require their own kind of mentality to find enjoyable. Professionals with godlike skills might be able to scurry through the game on its hardest difficulty in less than an hour and without even picking up any items on the way. Still, such feats are meant only for a small handful of gamers possessing enough dedication.

On whole, however, Rabi-Ribi manages to leave a somewhat positive aftertaste. It combines two different genres in an original way, and even if its story is a bit lightweight and vague, its gameplay has been honed to near perfection. Still, it’s remarkably challenging so those unable to pour hundreds and hundreds of hours into it are probably better off just enjoying it as a speedrun played by someone capable.