Category Archives: Shopping

Fart Art

We probably shouldn’t be here…

Any plans I might have had for this weekend were instantly rewritten on Friday, when the postman delivered my copy of South Park: The Fractured But Whole a few days in advance of its official street date of next Tuesday. As it has already been over three years since the really quite splendid The Stick of Truth, I immediately felt like taking the sequel for a spin. Now, after more than 20 hours and a playthrough, I’m happy to state that the humor of Trey Parker and Matt Stone remains as fresh as ever. That’s not to say The Fractured But Whole would have a particularly novel story, though. While the kids of South Park are still in the middle of their fantasy play from the last game, Eric Cartman suddenly decides that superheroes are the newest, coolest thing ever. And sure enough, in an instant everyone has come up with their own secret superhero identity and chosen their side in a battle between two feuding factions. As simple as that, all of South Park once again transforms into a battlefield limited only by imagination.

As before, the player is known simply as The New Kid, an unvoiced hero (or heroine) who joins Cartman’s faction, wielding the power of – you guessed it – flatulence. It’s a questionable skill but as the adventure goes on, wee little squeaks eventually evolve into massive discharges capable of ripping the very fabric of time itself. In other words, anyone playing the game should go in expecting a huge amount of deliberately crass fart, poop, and pee humor. Still, amid all this vulgarity, the youngsters of South Park once again teach the player to laugh at the incorrigible idiocy of the humankind in all of its forms. Brutally pertinent social criticism leaves no one unscathed, be it racists, bigots, or just people suffering from moral superiority and finding offense in the smallest of things. This wanton but intelligent anarchy is what the game (and South Park on whole) is all about, and once again it works wonders!

Story missions are strewn around town, tackled by a team of four superheroes. During the adventure, the player befriends up to ten familiar South Park characters donning an alter ego, each having one awesome special move and three slightly less formidable ones. The same goes for the player, too. At first, it is only possible to choose from a small handful of character classes but as the game goes on, all skills of ten different character classes become available for mixing and matching freely. As per role-playing standards, there’s moves for doing brutal damage up close and from afar, various healing skills, and a miscellaneous bunch of actions causing buffs or debuffs. Given an eventual pool of 40 different moves, it’s quite easy to find those four that best complement one’s playing style.

Turn-based battles are fought on relatively small grids where everyone tries to position themselves to both dish out damage and avoid taking it. Even more important is to maneuver so that after a character’s turn ends, the next one won’t be blocked from carrying out their actions. Since nothing is sacred, enemies include not just the kids of the opposing faction but also parents, senior citizens, Catholic priests, crooked cops, bums, prostitutes, Korean ninjas, crab people, etc. Those with enough confidence can even challenge Morgan Freeman himself.

Collection fans are pampered with countless ever-so-popular selfie opportunities with the various citizens of South Park. As typical for this age of vanity, they are instantly posted onto the game’s social media, Coonstagram, where the aim is naturally to become the one with the highest follower count in all of South Park. There’s also plenty of yaoi fan art of the series’ beloved boy couple, Tweek and Craig, as well as dozens of costumes, hair styles, scars, masks, accessories, and whatnot. The customization options are so plentiful that anyone should be able to create a South Park look of their dreams. Furthermore, miscellaneous junk picked up from pretty much everywhere is used to craft new costumes, various healing items, and artefacts that enhance the player’s stats.

In broad terms, The Fractured But Whole is kind of predictable but still rather excellent. It holds together not just because of its delightfully prickly humor but also because – and I’m technically contradicting myself here – it never ceases to surprise. Hilarious minigames and totally unexpected scenarios pop up at a breathtaking pace, making it nigh on impossible to get bored at any point. Even if it pretty much just re-invents the wheel of The Stick of Truth, at least that’s a recipe that has already proven itself; after a break of a few years, coming back to South Park was nothing but refreshing!

Other new acquisitions this past week include Culdcept Revolt and Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. The former is presumably some sort of JRPG slash card game slash Monopoly hybrid whereas the latter is probably a tough as nails strategy-JRPG. All in all, the harvest season of this year’s gaming crop is so bountiful that my wallet has been weeping for quite some time already, and I really wish that I, too, could fart myself more time. Oh well, at least this is a positive problem.

From Poland with Love

After completing Nights of Azure with all of its trophies and everything, these past few days have been pure R&R. In-between more full-figured projects, I’ve taken quite a bit of liking to Sky Force Anniversary, this month’s PlayStation Plus freebie by the Polish developer Infinite Dreams. It’s a no-nonsense old-school vertical shoot ’em up pitting a lone hero against the massive air, sea, and ground forces of a pronouncedly evil General Mantis. Games like these don’t really need more story than that, so it’s all about wanton fire and turning tons of hostile metal into scrap iron.

Most games in this genre rely on three lives, a whole lot of memorization, and ever-increasing firepower that is quickly taken away by a single blunder. Sky Force Anniversary is notably more compassionate, even if it only provides a single life and pretty much no other pickup bonuses than increased rate of fire. Still, it’s possible to start from any previously unlocked stage, and stars picked up from destroyed enemies act as currency to steadily improve the player’s ship into a true force to be reckoned with. Such options are plentiful from thicker armor, more powerful shots, and homing missiles all the way down to limited use game changers such as lasers, force fields, and mega bombs. The game is more than happy to dish out punishment but the slow and steady grind is what keeps everything fair. Even a failed run is still a stepping stone towards a ship that will eventually allow even the less-gifted pilots to shine. Probably.

Inevitable repetition is also alleviated by stage challenges. They require destroying 70% or 100% of anything hostile, taking no damage whatsoever, and rescuing poor troopers stuck behind enemy lines by floating above them for a brief amount of time. After completing these four requirements (not necessarily during the same run), the stage can be challenged on a higher difficulty level. Even then the number and placing of enemies remains the same; they merely shoot more aggressively. This, too, helps in making Sky Force Anniversary the most refreshing vertical shooter in ages. Usually these games would be entertaining for maybe fifteen minutes, feel “kinda fun” and, if they were arcade cabinets, maybe swallow a quarter or two. In this case, however, the game is so delightfully approachable that hours just fly by.

Sky Force Anniversary also acts as good practice for times to come, as a couple of the latest arrivals are ruthless bullet hell games. Caladrius Blaze is assumably a traditional such shooter whereas Rabi-Ribi combines wild projectile dodging with platforming. As well as these, there’s a bit more semi-retro love courtesy of PS2-action-JRPG Dark Cloud, which makes a welcome return to the shelf. I used to have it as a kid but since I was young and stupid back then, I even sold some of my games. As an adult, such frivolities are thankfully a thing of the past.

Hackety Slash

Somehow I feel Mr. Professor isn’t much of an artist :D

After retiring from my less-than-stellar golfing career, I have resumed kicking some good old demon butt. After only about 20 hours, Nights of Azure pitted me against a really feisty final boss followed by a short and slightly confusing epilogue and then the closing credits. For the third time in a row, I came to the conclusion that this game, too, coaxes its player to dig a little deeper. Even NG+ whisked me straight to the point before the final showdown, and as there are now new side quests and additional bosses all over the place, I’m once again forced to see just how punishing it is going to be to reach a proper ending.

At least until now, Nights of Azure has been pleasantly level-headed. It has been all about frenetic and mindless hacking and slashing throughout the entire game but at least it remains fun and well-paced. Unleashing wild combos and flashy special moves on hapless mobs is therapeutically relaxing, and the puny hordes frequently give way to tougher, appropriately big and nasty bosses. Should Arnice fall in battle, it’s not a game over as the game simply returns her and her Servans back to the hotel with all the experience gained on the way. That is a most welcome gesture, making even the occasional need to grind a breeze.

The cast is delightfully compact. There are only about half a dozen central characters, each given ample time to shine in the numerous cutscenes. Despite mild stereotypes and some repetition, character chemistry works well and is always silly. That’s definitely a plus, given how unimaginative brooding in a gloomy world overshadowed by a blood moon would be. Even if Arnice has to deal with incurable idiots, the comedy is still bad in a good way rather than just plain tired.

It was a bit surprising that only after about a dozen unique Servans, the game stated their collection to be already half done. Then again, it’s almost refreshing that there aren’t loads of them, especially as it’s deceptively easy to always fall back on the same four Servans. Arnice is eventually able to carry four such four-Servan groups, though, and that’s where the game is once again awfully considerate. Even unused Servans get the same amount of experience as the active ones, so leveling up frail newcomers into fighting shape is no bother at all.

At this particular moment I’m banging my head against the first, awfully temperamental extra boss but even if the “post”-game difficulty spike is rather noticeable, I still find myself smiling even when getting thoroughly beaten.

As well as Servans, past week was also about collecting games. The most unexpected surprise was the SNES Classic Mini, which I swore to get only if it would be absolutely effortless and not subject to price gouging. In the end, I picked up mine from the local supermarket during Friday evening grocery shopping, so it couldn’t have been easier. Looks like living in a small town has its benefits. PS1 JRPG Koudelka and the bargain bin PS4 trio of Abzû, Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair, and Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star complemented the backlog that only seems to be growing as time goes by. Oh well, such is game otaku life.

Warming Up

Hey, it’s the participation that counts :P

If Everybody’s Golf sounded a bit drab the last time around, things are slowly starting to look up. At least right now, it feels like it surreptitiously conforms to its player’s mood swings. When approached with indifference, shots end up all over the place and even a humbling bogey can quickly escalate into a +5 catastrophe. With even a little bit of genuine effort, the RNG gods start smiling upon the player, ensuring that even a clumsy swing can turn into something not entirely hopeless. It’s nigh on impossible to pull off a perfect shot due to having to factor in wind, aim, course profile, spin, ground, timing, and luck, but on whole it really feels like the game is more than happy to complement an earnest attempt. Thanks to ever-improving clubs, birdies have become the new norm, and I’m already capable of scoring occasional eagles, too.

The game still has trouble entertaining for more than those 30-60 minutes at a time, but even that is enough to make good progress. One can usually choose between a round of either nine or 18 holes, which last around 10-20 minutes. In single player, the most important reward is experience, which unlocks new VS adversaries. Online, it’s a matter of seeing how well you fare against others both globally and within an automatically selected peer group of nine others. The best players are already beating me by a good 10-15 shots but even if I’m usually near the bottom of any leaderboard, at least there’s a daily challenge course with a participation reward of more avatar customization items.

As a new curio, one beaten VS adversary taught my avatar how to fish, so if golfing gets dull, one can always head to the nearest beach or pond to catch some seafood. Still, even this activity is nothing but mashing a button after getting a bite, so it’s hardly any more interesting than riding golf carts or swimming; they’re all goofy side activities that could theoretically be considered new features but that don’t seem to serve any practical purpose.

Whatever the case, Everybody’s Golf remains a reasonably entertaining title that is easy to visit on a daily basis. Still, it probably works better as a side dish for some slightly more full-bodied gaming experience. Nevertheless, I’m happy to trundle on, if only to some day score that fabled hole-in-one.

Gloomy and rainy autumn weekends are pretty much perfect for staying strictly indoors with a good video game or two. This week saw yet another bunch of hopeful entrants joining the collection. Back in June, I was mildly entertained by Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, which got a sequel, Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, just this month. Jolly good release schedule, as it’s always more fun to finish incomplete stories while still remembering something about them. Then again, Mask of Deception was definitely heavy on reading, so for now I think I’ll spend a bit more time indulging in something that has more gameplay.

On Nintendo 3DS, it never ceases to amaze me just how many releases almost manage to fly under my radar. The JRPG duo, 7th Dragon III: Code: VFD and The Legend of Legacy, is a good example, and even if I don’t yet know practically anything about either of them, I have great trust in both Atlus and Sega. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a bit more familiar and rather old by now, but I totally forgot that it got a physical release as well. Thankfully these titles can still be salvaged from here and there to complement my archive of personally interesting games.

Kthxbye

Thank you, Bandai Namco. Never EVER again.

Yawn… Another week, another post about The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars. Still, this shall be the last of its kind, as listening to cutesy Japanese pop music for six weeks straight is probably enough to drive anyone insane. During this weekend, I briefly felt like I would be able to bid it farewell with grace, dignity, and feeling good. That brief moment of happiness, however, was just the game’s dastardly ploy to remind me that it’s still very much the same sadistic psychopath it has been these past few weeks. Here’s how it ended:

  • 141 hours: Everyone has seven million fans. I wander in the darkness. Nothing matters anymore.
  • 153 hours: Everyone has eight million fans. All is well in grind hell. Carry on.
  • 158 hours: Everyone has nine million fans. I spent all money earned from lives so far to publicity photo shoots. They helped me reach this point almost seven hours early. This producer is now not just tired but also very much broke.
  • 168 hours: Everyone has ten million fans! Could this truly be the glorious end of a long journey?
  • 171 hours: All idols have reached the platinum S rank! It took a while as everyone had to pass a rank up live consisting of three full songs, but it was still good times! Elation and tears of happiness for all! Since the game’s subhead is Platinum Stars, I now feel like I’ve bested it properly.
  • 174 hours: Ooh! Everyone in S rank has a solo live that unlocks a new costume! After almost a hundred hours, the long and dry clothing season ends with a flood of 13 new costumes. However, one costume still remains locked. Because irony.
  • 175 hours: All 20 songs have reached Legend status. In theory, this would have required playing each of them 200 times but at least the game is kind enough to (very) occasionally gift music magazines that shave off 10-30 repetitions. Even then, one probably has to be a bit of a masochist to get this far.
  • 176 hours: All S rank lives thoroughly completed. Since there’s basically nothing to achieve anymore, surely that one last costume would be a fine reward? No? Well sod off then.

Even if I now have plenty of platinum stars, getting the platinum trophy would still require that last costume. I also still need a bunch of vouchers for the local tailor, even if they’re total dicks and only accept them in bundles of five. All this stuff can only be obtained from gift packages that are occasional, random rewards after a live. Even getting a present comes down to luck, and for how it has been for a long time already, they’re almost guaranteed to contain nothing but useless items or duplicate costumes. Since some unlucky players have apparently spent over 500 hours to overcome this last ordeal, I call this farce off on my behalf. Never again shall I meddle with games designed around microtransactions, especially when they’re not even free but full retail.

Triple oasis of refreshment!

Hours spent on that time-waster were all the more agonizing as more interesting games kept popping up in the background. Everybody’s Golf is bound to feature familiar but entertaining casual golfing, Knack 2 follows in the footsteps of its predecessor by being a game that every critic seems to love ridiculing (in itself a good enough reason to buy it), and Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is still very much a mystery to me. Based on hearsay, it’s supposedly some sort of soulmate to Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, but one that doesn’t require you to sink hundreds of hours into it. Especially after my last escapade, that part in particular sounds awfully nice.

Preparations

Man has reasonable internet. Man is happy.

Seems like two weeks have once again mysteriously vanished somewhere. Hardly a loss, given that nothing particularly interesting has been going on. I have been making steady progress in The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars but that’s more akin to watching grass grow. Still, since PS4 makes streaming so exceptionally easy, I began to wonder if I, too, should give it a go. A console alone isn’t quite enough, though, so I’ve spent the past few days acquiring various pieces of essential gear.

The most important prerequisite for streaming is, of course, proper upstream. I’m unfortunately stuck in a housing complex that only has support for an ancient 11/1 broadband, woefully inadequate to stream even at potato quality. Even after hearing countless horror stories about the unreliability of mobile internet, I decided to risk it and see if I could replace my broadband with 4G. Much to my surprise, this experiment worked out just fine. With a new router and 4G LTE, transfer speeds even during the worst rush hours seem to hover around 50/30, so not only is it a massive improvement, I once again feel like being part of modern society when it comes to internet.

Although I’m hardly a social motor mouth, the general consensus seems to be that a stream without narration isn’t really a stream at all. Since I had no microphone headphones conveniently lying around, it was time to go shopping again. Audiophiles can probably spend ages contemplating the pros and cons of various headsets whereas my only requirement was “whatever, pick something”. After five minutes of nonchalant googling, I went with Turtle Beach P12. They hardly exude an aura of high quality but since the headphones and the mic seem to work just fine, that’s plenty good enough for me.

After getting the headphones, I smoothly moved on to curse the PS4 only having two USB ports. Since I use one to keep my controller constantly charged and the other is taken by an external hard drive, I was obviously in need of a USB hub. Trust GXT 215 seemed like a nice five-port hub that blends nicely with the design of the console itself. Very cheap but of questionable quality, too. After only a few evenings my controller briefly stopped responding to button presses. So far this has only happened once, so it’s still too early to say if this hub was nothing but a mistake.

Since I’m free of all responsibilities this weekend, I might actually have time to properly test all this out. All experiments will take place on Twitch, and I even found a silly little sidebar widget to show when a broadcast is live. Don’t expect much in the way of entertainment, frequency, or skill in gaming, but surely internet still has room for one proper scrub channel.

As for new game acquisitions these past couple of weeks, the collection has only been joined by Yakuza Kiwami. As it has been barely six months since Yakuza 0 and as Kiwami is “only” a remaster of the very first Yakuza, I think I’ll tackle it later this year. As nice as it is to see many new players discovering this wonderful series that kicked off back in the PS2 era, Sega is now pushing them out with frequency that borderlines on being too excessive.

Groundhog Century

So nice, if only it would end :'(

If my gaming is in a slump due to everyday drudge once more replacing glorious vacation days, The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars does its damnedest to keep it that way. As surmised, I’ve now given it around 58 hours but pretty much nothing of any interest has happened. Going through horribly monotonic motions increases the idols’ experience and number of fans, but progress is so laughably slow that the game has regressed into nothing more than a weary battle of attrition. Should a new gig show up, you can rest assured that it’s something that won’t be even remotely beatable until 10-20 hours later. Perfect performances mean jack shit as if your characters aren’t on a high enough level, the required score limit is just plain impossible to reach. End of discussion. So, I’ve entertained myself playing through the same challenge over and over again for a couple of hundred of times, grinding slow and steady. Such wow. Much joy. Surely a few paid helper items from the store would do the trick, eh? F**k you, Project iM@S.

In a rueful fashion, the game follows a virtual year cycle advancing on a weekly basis. Skipping every possible cutscene, it’s possible to truncate one in-game year into a three hour real-time marathon covering 48 ordinary shows and four specials involving the entire cast of idols. If this cycle was realistic, these 13-21-year-old heroines would be at the peak of their careers around the ripe age of 90, and even that might take an incarnation or two. Thankfully, they’re effectively ageless. Still, at this point minor observations like that are crucial to endure the whole ordeal. You could, for example, set a daily goal of going through one in-game year (even if a quarter is already starting to feel repulsive). On Valentine’s Day, the chosen leader gives out complimentary chocolate, so that’s another potential goal to spend 39 hours or so. The pitiful selection of songs can also be raised to Legend status, which requires them to be completed 200 times each. The biggest reward of doing so is most likely that you’re never ever going to choose them again. Still, repeatedly playing the same song over and over again means that you quickly figure out that exact note when your current crew hits maximum audience zeal. Since missed notes carry no penalty, that’s when the song can be left to play itself while the player can just as well go to the fridge, take a piss, have a smoke, or spend a serious moment contemplating why they’re voluntarily submitting to this level of self-inflicted torture. Oh, and those 20 songs featured in the game? One is still locked. It’ll probably become available after 60-70 hours or something. Jesus.

All this is especially maddening as Platinum Stars is a proper rhythm game, even if awfully lightweight in content. If it would’ve rolled its ending credits after 15-20 hours and shown all that it genuinely has by 30-50 hours, it would’ve left the stage as a celebrated winner. Now it has turned into that person. You know, the one you meet by chance and who’s awfully jovial and remarkably pleasant for a while until you realize that they’re nothing more than an absolute asshole and you’re inadvertently stuck with them for life with the only way of escape probably involving a sharp ax and a manslaughter charge. I’ll continue my rhythmical journey, although it has already turned into a macabre social study of what it actually takes to finish a game that has obviously been designed around nothing else than skimming its players off hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Bloody cynical.

Moving on would be a trigger pull away…

Ditching a game once started is always la petite mort of sorts but should that (once again) happen, at least intensive care would be close by. Mind-numbing repetition could easily be replaced either by the backlog or the five new JRPGs joining the fray; Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, Nights of Azure, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls (dual releases be forever damned), but especially Stella Glow. That one might actually feature that strategic role-playing bliss I was expecting from Utawarerumono, which kind of failed to deliver.

Upping the Ante

You WON’T climb away, filthy Militesi cockroach!

Whoa! When the big wheel of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD ultimately turns, it does so in a most impressive manner! If anyone doubts the influence of mere 14 teenage cadets in a full-scale war between superpowers, they would be correct. When push comes to shove, it amounts to very little. Once the conflict escalates, fair play get flushed down the toilet, and all participants resort to their extreme measures, the going gets epic. Sure, the Rubrum cadets are still in the midst of things but as the number of casualties grows to hundreds of thousands and the radio mostly relays the final moments of desperate units, it’s enough to make one’s hair stand on end. It truly is an unconventional Final Fantasy but in a touching and convincing way.

Sadly, Type-0 is also increasingly inclined to point out that it would like to be played through several times. Not only does it limit the time required to experience optional events, it rolls out more and more bosses that can probably be bested but hardly on the first playthrough. When such encounters do happen, the story will still continue after everyone in the player’s party has been wiped out but that’s hardly a source for drama. Even several side quests are so challenging that there’s very little point in trying to do them on the first run. There’s nothing wrong with replay value as such, but in this case the idea is definitely something that the game loves to shove down the player’s throat.

The other major fault with Type-0 is its lack of actual storytelling. The game shares, at least thematically, a whole lot with Final Fantasy XIII but it’s essentially more of a stage for a massive conflict than a bona fide story. Many of the terms used classify under “surely you know.” The academy library holds an encyclopedia called Rubicus, which eventually grows to cover more than several centuries of the history of this universe, but it sure could’ve used a glossary as well. The game is a little too confident that its player knows Final Fantasy lore like the back of his hand, and that proper storytelling can be replaced with just loads of text in a book. Just getting to know the 14 main characters is a matter of checking out the Rubicus for their backgrounds and motivations, as the game hardly bothers to flesh them out.

Fighting is still inscrutably ADHD. While brawling, the player can also choose to accept special orders. They are bite-sized, time-limited challenges such as besting the next couple of enemies with magic, avoiding all damage for 30 seconds, going for those sweet spots of damage, etc. Success will be rewarded with an item, failure with the death of the played character. Naturally all these orders would have to be opened, reviewed, and either accepted or declined while everything else is constantly going on, so at least us old fogies have a far better chance of preserving our sanity by ignoring them altogether. Gaming goddesses be praised that this HD remake also includes an easy difficulty mode, making it possible to push on without reactions measured in nanoseconds or being able to multitask eight different things at once.

That’s everything this summer. Really.

I’m quite pleased at how well I’ve managed to prune my backlog lately, and even more so because only one newcomer has managed to sneak in at the same time. Deemo: The Last Recital is presumably a PlayStation Vita rhythm game that relies on touch screen controls only. I probably would’ve skipped it altogether but couldn’t resist a physical copy. Even if touch screen controls don’t sound very promising and it probably won’t challenge the dominance of Hatsune Miku, it should have rhythm and that’s all I require to give it a go!

Aria of No Soul

Whee! I’m done! Now let’s quickly get out of here!

If this wasn’t much of a week then Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Anniversary at least follows suit. Even if it was still a cautiously entertaining adventure just last weekend, its latter half stumbled on so many clichés that it would have needed to be a self-conscious parody rather than a solemn action-adventure to work. It’s a real shame, too, considering that tech-wise Rise of the Tomb Raider is still nigh on impeccable. Both the overall imagery of the game as well as the detail of its heroine’s animation are absolutely spot on. When Lara admires the exceptionally gorgeous views, or quickly dries her ponytail after a quick swim, those are the moments when the player probably feels most in sync with the character. Movement is fluent, bullets fly true, and the environment is discreetly graceful at pointing out ledges that can be grabbed, vertical surfaces that allow an additional step, or cliffsides that can be leaped onto with a couple of climbing axes.

Even if the staff of Crystal Dynamics seem to be on the level from a technical perspective, the other aspects making up a game are a bit woeful. Two religious extremities – one strong but evil, the other weak but good – vying over an ancient secret really is a piss-poor motif to begin with, but it’s ten times worse approached seriously. Sure, Indiana Jones fights Nazis and Nathan Drake has his own treasure hunts, but at least those two know how to laugh at themselves. Lara does not laugh. Even if Rise of the Tomb Raider no longer treats its heroine in such a repulsive and sadistic manner than its predecessor (Tomb Raider of 2013), there’s still not even an iota of British charm present, as much as a treasure trove that would be. No one ever smiles, except maybe by accident, and when awfully stereotypical characters constantly end up in awfully stereotypical situations while spouting lines like “You do what you must”, or when Lara is sitting at a campfire, having a personal crisis of how awful it is for the good in this world to witness death and violence… It’s just plain cringe-worthy.

As for gameplay, it has similar problems. Whenever Lara can choose a stealthy approach, picking off her adversaries one by one from the shadows, the game shines at its brightest. To counter these occasions, however, there are tons of moments when you’re swarmed by alarmed bad guys and left with no option but to survive. At times, an endless rain of nades would put even Call of Duty in shame, and when all else fails there’s always the tired old cliché of slow but heavily armored baddies to fall back to. Rise of the Tomb Raider never finds a good balance between these two extremes. It’s either an enjoyable stealth encounter or a shockingly loud and chaotic skirmish but rarely ever anything in between. Towards the end, all gauges are turned up to eleven and everything is so flashy it no longer even matters anymore. Just a ridiculous barrage of unnecessarily dramatic explosions and close calls that are there only for their own sake (incidentally something that hampered the previous game, too).

I beat the game in 20 hours, including one of its story-driven DLCs, which was pretty much more of the same but with a hugely original twist of added chaos via psychedelic hallucinations. Oh FFS, game designers, get your act together already. If this is AAA, I’m happy to stick to the sidelines.

Auspicious second-stringers

Speaking of which, even if this time of year doesn’t sport that many new releases, a couple still caught my attention. Little Nightmares is, apparently, some sort of a dark puzzle-platformer that probably would’ve flown right past my radar without plenty of positive hearsay. As for Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, it’s something I’ve briefly covered already, and really a game I’m really looking forward to. Now if only I could get that one remarkably time-consuming and, at times, aggravating DS puzzle game done and dusted… If anything, I’m thankful of not having to cover these as work.

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.