Sunday, June 30, 2013

Music! Old-timey edition.

Dig the new header?  How could I not love Muramasa?  Put a katana in a game, and it just jumped two points in my book.  Set the entire thing in Edo-period Japan, and I'm in love.

Except for Way of the Samurai 3.  The game's wonky feel was fine on PS2, but that... that one needed some smoothing out.

I kinda' fell in love with Bukka White's Shake 'Em On Down - the most interesting thing to come out of a brief investigation into ZRun, so I promptly took to searchin' for his other stuff.  I wish I could find you the a streaming copy of the studio version of Aberdeen Mississippi Blues (there are some versions out there, but they're all live - nice, but live), so Parchman Farm will have to do for now.

What else..?  Ooh!  Y'ever see that old Susan Sarandon, Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins baseball movie called Bull Durham?  Back when my family purchased movies whose quality was deemed "buyable," we had a small library of VHS tapes - and I musta' watched Bull Durham about thirty times.  Every now and then, ever since, I've tried to track down a certain song - and finally, now, in this glorious information age, here it is:

When I first heard it, I had no idea what the guy was singing about.  It's as dirty as Butcher Pete, and I love it.  Oh, speaking of Butcher Pete - which is awesome, listen to it if you haven't heard it - here's another great track from the same swingin' cat, Roy Brown.

Hm.  Trackin' down this next one makes me realize I really should pick up Mafia II the next time I see it in a twenty dollar bin.

The first time I heard this, I was sure it was The Johnston Brothers - but no!  Totally different guys - same smokey vibe.

Annnd that'll do for now.  G'night folks!

The Games of July 2013.

As the gorgeous and healthy June release calendar strolls from the room, July walks in looking like something that's nearly killed itself on Atkins. The most important launch of the month is a 3DS title.

And I'm fine with that.  Seriously, I am.

After all, Shahid Ahmad is still on the beat and I really doubt Velocity Ultra will be the only cool indie coming to the Vita this month.  Speaking of which...

July 2nd
Velocity Ultra, a teleporting puzzle-solving shoot-em-up indie.
Hype-O-Meter : Not really my genre, but it looks cool.

 Velocity Ultra, a bit like Hotline Miami, is one of the indies that Shahid hasn't been able to shut up about - he's absolutely in love with it, if you believe his tweets, and it has gotten some pretty stellar reviews.

It's been out in Europe for months now, but the certification for the NA release just landed this past week - and it drops this Tuesday.  Velocity Ultra combines classic shoot-em-up mechanics with a weird teleportation mechanic that's constantly required to navigate its levels and enemies, and has an additional interesting tweak to the standard SHMUP design - if you want to really beat the crap out of its levels, you have to teleport yourself back to earlier in the scroll in order to crack locks in a certain order.

If nothing else, a lot of publications have assured me it's very good.

July 2nd
The Walking Dead: 400 Days, a one-episode piece of DLC that bridges seasons 1 and 2 of Telltale's The Walking Dead adventure games.
PS3, iOS, PC, Mac, Vita (eventually, we're assured)
Hype-O-Meter : Day One.

The Walking Dead's first season is all kinds of lovely, and given that Telltale are pretty good on price (I'd expect this to be about five bucks), I'm definitely going to have to day-one the next chapter of their accomplished, smooth-sippin' adventure drama.

July 9th
Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection, a collection of heavily story-driven stealth-action games.
Hype-O-Meter : I've got all of these games two or three times over.  No sale.

The Legacy Collection collects every Metal Gear Solid title that Hideo Kojima directed - which means you're not getting Snake's Revenge, Portable Ops, Ac!d or Ghost Babel.  What you do get is

  • Metal Gear (1987, through MGS3)
  • Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990, through MGS3)
  • Metal Gear Solid (1998)
  • Metal Gear Solid VR Missions (1999)
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty (2001) HD verison
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004) HD version
  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008)
  • Metal Gear Solid : Peace Walker (2010)

...which is like, $6.25 a game - plus two digital graphic novels from Ashley Wood.  Given that I've got everything here on my Vita alone, save for 4... no.  No, I'm good, Kojima.  Call me when MGSV is good to go.

A stealth action-RPG.
July 9th - 360, PC - Hype-O-Meter : Hmm...

Fittingly, this is one of June's two dark horse candidates.

On paper, Dark is everything I love, but without platforming.  It's got a cool art style, stealth, and is an action-RPG.  With vampires.

Developer Realmforge hasn't made anything you or I have heard of.  Their last two games were heavily panned for boring, "mind-numbing" gameplay, and they've never broken 70 on Metacritic - which would be less of a problem if the trailers for the game didn't make its gameplay look so stilted and... amateurish.  I'll be happy waiting for reviews on this one, but even with (what I anticipate will be) a lot of 6s and 7s, I may have to check it out.

Turn-based RPG.
July 16th - 3DS - Hype-O-Meter : If I had a 3DS, I'd be all over this.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is the first core game this franchise has seen in a decade.  The property's profile exploded with the release and success of SMT: Persona 3 and 4, but I have a confession to make : I didn't love SMTIII.  I went back and checked it out after falling in love with P3, but its crushing challenge and backgrounded narrative weren't able to really grab me.

I love those Persona games, though, and I'll admit I find it a bit disappointing that SMTIV has really gone back to its roots here, with mildly-animated enemy sprites and a seriously menu-driven style.  It almost looks like a... kickstarted 16-bit JRPG throwback (though it has lovely cutscenes and you explore a fully-3D world when not in combat).  I shouldn't knock it, of course - if I had a 3DS, this would be a no-brained day-one purchase - but I'll admit, I'm not really leaping out of my chair at the prospect.

Going on Atlus's history alone, Shin Megami Tensei IV will be on a lot of 2013 Game of the Year lists.

Weirdly, if I'm going to buy an JRPG this month, it's one that I can pretty much assure you won't be all that good...

An animated action-RPG.
  July 16th - PS3 - Hype-O-Meter : It sounds terrible, but I'm still buying it.

Time and Eternity's Japanese release was hammered by critics, and it currently is enjoying a score of thirty-seven on Metacritic.  Yeowch.  That's a whole four points better than Amy.  Still, Kotaku's Richard Eisebeis - the guy who covers Japan - had some nice things to say about it, at least.

So why am I committed to this game - a preorder down and everything - if it mostly-sucks?  First of all, it's a game in which you travel a 3D world and do battles as a gigantic, 2D animated sprite - which I am very fond of.  Second...

I sent my first-ever tweet, the president of Image Epoch responded, and I feel it would be downright rude of me not to play the game he had localized, after I literally begged him to.

And I'm Canadian.  I don't do rude. 

* * *

And that's July!  Keep in mind, a new Dynasty Warriors drops this month - but that's Mogs' department - and I will be shocked if we don't get another one or two notable indies on Vita (see: Lone Survivor) before the month is through.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Game Diary - still Muramasa.

I think that's it.  I think that's my perfect Momohime Vs. Samurai screen.  It'd be more-ideal if they were more symmetrical on the screen, but overall it really works.  They're both in combat animations (getting Momohime up to run speed so she holds the blade over her shoulder before the samurai crosses the screen is a real challenge), the rice fields in the foreground, the woods beyond, the colors of the sunset on the clouds, the windswept tree... yeah.  I can dig it.

That works.

Momohime goes to Hell.

Last night I blitzed through the last half of Momohime's campaign, getting her first ending.  She and Kisuke each have three - dependent on the swords you wield going in to the final battle.  The swords necessary for the second ending are only given to the player once they beat both Kisuke and Momohime's campaigns (about eight hours each), but the player can easily defeat the campaigns at around level 40.  The swords that must be used for the second ending are then unlocked, but the player can only wield them when their Strength and Endurance stats are around 100 each - about level 50 - so I warped around the map with Momohime, beat some of Kisuke's bosses (you can go where the other character went, and fight the bosses they fought - a nice touch), leveled her up and returned to get the second ending.

What's really cool is I find each ending equally satisfying.  Her first ending is a delicious close to her relationship with Jinkuro, but Ending 2 plays a bit further with it and goes to a happier place.  They riff on the same emotion and the same conclusion of how the relationship's grown, but you're... I don't know, happier for everyone

I love how crazy the plot gets.

I don't often become really attached Vita games.  Perhaps their portable nature kind of encourages the player to easily walk away - or perhaps, as with PS3 games, saturation has taken its toll on my heavy gamer heart - but Muramasa feels like it's achieved the kind of long-term affection few Vita games can.  Games like Guacamelee and Gravity Rush.

Momohime goes to Heaven

I am now in the process of exploring every nook and cranny of Muramasa's mini-Japan, defeating all the optional Demon Caves and leveling Momohime up to 99 so she can wield the ultimate blade which I think is called the Oboro Muramasa, but I can't be sure because you don't see a weapon's name until you have it forged.

I keep thinking of that scene in Kill Bill where Hatsuo Hanzo presents The Bride with her custom sword.  "If on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut."

I am gonna' get that sword, and see just how far this road goes.

I am gonna' platinum this game.  Or try to, anyway.

...which isn't a feeling I often get.  The last time I got it was for Guacamelee, where I'm only one trophy shy of the platinum.  The Vita version insists I haven't beaten it on hard mode (which is bullshit - but maybe it was on PS3), but that's more of a pleasure than a chore, so I can't hold it against it.

No, I'm gonna' enjoy this.  Might even give the next couple of Shahid's indies a pass, unless something really interesting like Stealth Bastard or Lone Survivor show up.

From the ending credits - another great header option.

I've gotten more use out of my Vita lately than I did when the platform launched - and it was a pretty dense launch lineup, with Rayman and Uncharted and a good half-dozen must-see titles.  Lately though, with just Guacamelee, Hotline Miami, a curiosity about a lot of interesting games on the platform (Rymdkapsel, WipEout, Atelier) and now Muramasa, I really feel like the Vita has achieved the potential I felt it had when I first laid hands on it.

Occasionally on message boards, on Twitter, in the comments sections of the enthusiast press, I'll see comments wondering why on Earth anyone suggests that the Vita isn't a phenomenal handheld - and I always have the same answer:

"If someone doesn't love the Vita, I have to posit it's because they don't have a Vita."

Friday, June 28, 2013

Muramasa screenshots of the day! June 28th.

I didn't put as much time as usual into Muramasa yesterday, as I felt compelled to get Hotline Miami off my plate - but on the bright side I finally got the Momohime Vs. Samurai shot I've been lookin' for.

Misty fields and wind-swept trees... not bad.  Not perfect but certainly not bad.

I also fought this other samurai dude on a beach,

but he was no match for my Oboro sword style.

Momohime, in a desperate bid to save her beloved, forces her soul back in to her body to eject Jinkuro - and an uneasy agreement is made.

I also fought a giant forest spirit thing, but I couldn't get a good shot of his one glowing eye as he lines up his fist at you.

But still - took him down, and he transformed back into a mighty boar.

Pork chops, anyone?  Y'know what?  No.  Let's just go for a good soak.

Ahhh the hot springs.  That's something we can all enjoy.

And then we're off!  Off to more high-flying adventure in feudal Japan!

Soul Saga hits its PS4/Vita stretch goal on Kickstarter.

It's a classic turn-based JRPG-style game from a western dev, and "a love letter to J-RPG classics from the Playstation era like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Suikoden, and Persona."

By hitting $80K, the game will now come to Sony's platforms (except PS3) and the Wii U.  You might wanna' check out its Kickstarter page - it's got a ton of info, and the game looks pretty cool!

Thanks to AGB for keeping an eye on stuff like this.

These are all the free games in PlayStation Plus's first IGC year.

Click to enhugen.  Ninety-five per cent satisfaction rate it right.  That's a ton of awesome games - it'd be a lot less meaningful if they were all B-list titles, but... Demon's Souls, inFamous, BioShock, The Walking Dead, Vanquish, Saints Row, Just Cause... that works out to seventy-eight cents per game.

Yeah, you're doin' alright by me, Sony.

Total Recoil comes to Vita on July 9th.

Looks fun!  Forty levels, a variety of weapons and they've got the guy who does the voice of Tony the Tiger for a narrator.  Check out more over at the PlayStation Blog.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

REVIEW - Hotline Miami.

Hotline Miami is a surrealist, trippy, top-down retro action game that offers a touch of stealth and a lot of blood. Set in late 1980s Miami, players retrieve innocuous messages off their answering machine that each contain a new address, directing the character to their next hit.  The player then steps out of their DeLorean at the prescribed location with nothing more than a rubber animal mask and a willingness to butcher everyone inside.

It's got a ton of secrets, unlockable items and collectibles to discover throughout its decidedly old-school world for folks who want to get as much replay value out of it as they can, and can be completed in a few dedicated hours.

Let's dig in.

It's disturbing.  I've enjoyed a lot of games with some pretty gross content and not batted an eye, but this is different.

Unlike a lot of high-concept yet kinda'-preachy modern games that are mindful of and reflect on the violence the player enjoys, Hotline Miami is reflective without ever feeling like a sermon.  It just kinda' points out that you like this and leaves it at that.

Lets you mull it over for yourself.  Makes me think about an article I read ten years ago where this psychiatrist or psychologist or whatever pointed out that horror movies are date movie staples because horrific, gory violence subconsciously arouses both genders, which improves one's chances of getting laid afterwards.

Watching people getting killed turns you on.


Makes me think of A Clockwork Orange.  "A bit of the old ultraviolence."

Before entering a level, you select a grotesque mask from those you've unlocked.  Though I should point out, every face in this game is grotesque.  Richard (heh - get it?) is for purists who don't want any hand-holding or upgrades activated.

When wearing the tiger mask, Tony (heh, get it?), you'll one-shot dudes with just your fists.

Don Juan, who allows opening doors into enemies to kill them, is pretty handy, but given that you start every mission without a weapon by default, you may favor Dennis or Carl or Richter, who each let you begin with lethal arms.

Why give the masks human names?  What's the message, there?

That's up to you.  Lately I've been favoring Peter, as - to be honest - I'm not fond of the game's somewhat-ridiculous difficulty when it becomes a shooting gallery, and while he doesn't render gunshots completely silent (enemies will come running from all over when they hear a shot), he certainly allows for more patient and (to my eye) satisfying strategies and... execution.

Hotline Miami is hard.  And I can't admit I find it entirely hard in the Dark Souls way or the Mirror's Edge way or the Enemy Unknown way.  It often feels too random and unpredictable, and draws infinitely more curses from my generally placid tongue when the AI does something seemingly-random which I couldn't have anticipated.

Which is, I suppose, interesting - but I also found it regularly frustrating.  I love that the player is just as mortal and death-prone as his enemies - it makes the combat very razor's-edge - but I also regularly find myself feeling that, even with flawless timing, there was no solution to the eight angry gun barrels just flooded into the room from all angles.

On the bright side, when you die (and you will die, over and over and over and over) the game restarts you at the current floor instantly.  There's absolutely no load - which makes one-more-try far more appetizing - and, interestingly (in a good way), the weapons strewn about the level and often even in enemies' hands will have been randomized, sometimes along with their behavior.

I'm sorry, where were we?  Oh yes.  Ultraviolence.

I'm about to walk you through the first mission - far and away the easiest in the game, and in no way indicative of its merciless difficulty - but a fine example of mechanics and tone.  You've been tasked with obtaining a briefcase, and - as in every mission - dealing with everyone inside.  I'm about to show you a successful run of this mission.  Please keep in mind that as easily as I dispatch these fellows, it's after a lot of practice, and a lot of deaths and education in frame-specific timing.

Your enemies are just as fast as you are, have the exact same reach you do, and - just like you can to them - they can one-hit-kill you with whatever weapon they happen to be holding.

Let's begin.  The setting is a train station.

This goon is standing behind that door - which is lucky for us.  By busting through the door when he's standing in front of it, he gets knocked on his ass.

With no other thugs around to interfere, we are then free to straddle him, grab him by the head and bash that head into the tiles until it breaks. You have to mash X.

He had a bat.  Let's pick it up.  We could probably rush this dude taking a leak in the bathroom (if you look closely you can see the stream), but why take the risk of him turning?

Best to throw the bat at him as we come through the door, which knocks him on his ass, wanging his head against the tiles.

Then, we can break it.

Floor clear - time to head upstairs.

This one's got his back to me - I can just rush him and bust his head open with the 'ol Louisville Slugger.  The dudes below are walking in a circuit - so I just have to wait until the fellow on the left gets his back to me, blitz forward and crack!  Home run!

Now, wait by the wall as the fellow below does his circuit - he'll get reeeal close, and

the crowd goes wild.  No, the AI isn't brilliant - thugs won't care when they see one of their buddies shattered across the floor.

Then it's a simple bat-throw to disable the third dude.  Pick the bat back up, stand over him and whack, with this sickening, sloppy, crunching sound effect.


Finally, there are two men in the west hallway.  I drop Louie and pick up the knife one of the above thugs dropped when I brained 'em. 

I lock on to one of them, dash past the doorway that opens into the hall and fling the knife.  I get lucky - which just as often (if not more) goes the other way in this game - and it takes them both out with one perfect shot.

I'm not sure who this asshole in the green is.  Doesn't matter.  He's gotta' go.

Batter up.

 And there's my briefcase.  Time to get back to the DeLorean.

The client wants me to leave the briefcase in an alley - but I didn't count on... whoever this is showing up.


Shit.  You gotta' die, son.

Nothin' personal.  Wrong place, wrong time - you know how it is.

And he goes down easy, but... that doesn't go down so easy.  And dinner comes up.


But we didn't do so bad. The score counter says so.

The weapon unlocks don't allow you to select weapons. Instead, they're added to the randomized instruments you'll find placed throughout the levels.

B minus ain't too shabby.  And things only get better from there. 

 Or worse, depending on how you look at it.  But we don't ever puke again.

Y'see the little red flecks on the bottom of the above screen?  Not the blood splatters, but the little ones, with the gold tips?  

Those are shotgun shells, ejected from the gun I used to eliminate those four men.  You've gotta' hand it to Hotline Miami - it's got a real attention to detail.  Enemies can die in dozens of different ways, depending on how, precisely, you kill them, with limbs exploding because they were struck just so by a spray of bullets or the swipe of a blade.  You can literally cut men in half with a shotgun in this game, and you can see tiny pink entrails snaking away from tiny torn-open bellies.  I've seen ostensibly triple-A games that weren't so thoughtful in the execution of their executions. 

Tiny hands hold tiny weapons.  Your tiny mask is always visible, and changes as you change it.  Tiny dogs prowl tiny hallways, and will happily rip out your tiny throat if you let them get the drop on you.  

There are tiny tables and tiny beds.  Tiny bathtubs, tiny toilets for tiny enemies to take tiny shits, tiny bar stools in tiny night clubs.  As far as retro-style games go, Hotline Miami may be narrow in scope, but within its smallness, it's dense.

The fact that the graphics are so low-res - and combined with the rather-detailed animations, massive variety of death scenarios, ambiguous, sparse, haunting narrative, thick sound effects and the game's fantastic soundtrack - ensures that a great deal of the... intimacy of its violence is painted in the mind of the player.  If anything, the old sixteen-bit style visuals make it more distressing than it would be in a modern triple-A, where this sort of thing is almost commonplace, and easier to ignore. 

It recalls our innocence as it holds a mirror up to how desensitized we've become, even as we find ourselves driven forward to keep playing - just one more try.  

There's a word that keeps coming up when I think of this insane little indie - and it's a good match.  The game is 
1. Gruesome; horrible; revolting.
2. Glaringly vivid and sensational; shocking.
3. Terrible in intensity, or unrestraint.
4. Lighted or shining with an unnatural, fiery glow.
-some dictionary -
Lurid.  You could crack open a Webster's and see a picture of Hotline Miami next to the word, and in its uniquely gruesome, glaring, shocking, intense, unnatural way, it's spectacularly successful. 

That said, I can't give the game a carte blanche pass.  It's largely worthy of the attention it's received, if only for the sake of how profoundly different an experience it is - but within this terribly unique niche its carved for itself, I can't shake the feeling that Hotline Miami has room yet to grow.  I can't shake the sense that its strange formula has the potential for a perfection it does not, here, achieve. 

The gameplay remains vicious and exciting.  Its oft-frustrating difficulty is tempered by the siren's call of instantaneous retries, and a practiced gradient to its challenge - this is a game you will sit down with to "just try out," and the next time you glance at the clock you'll find three hours have passed.  By the time you reach the final encounter, your repeated and near-instant deaths are comforted by the solid belief that this can be done - you just have to figure it out.  

But, upon having figured it out, I must admit, I didn't find Hotline Miami as satisfying as so many other writers have assured me it is.  It rarely felt entirely like it was my own success, when I defeated its more intimidating levels - merely that the not-entirely-predictable AI hadn't screwed me this time, and/or I had straight-up lucked out on a few kills.  It's a fierce, foaming-at-the-mouth, original little game - and I love that the ambiguous narrative asks questions of the player without ever preaching at them - but I would find the price point ($10) a bit steep, were it not for cross-buy being on the table as well.  

If this review comes across as negative, it's only because I wish to raise a counter-point to the almost uniform praise the game has garnered.  It's great, but I can't call it excellent.  I certainly can't consider it the best indie to launch in 2012, because I'm quite confident saying it wasn't

I can say it's a special game.  A very different game, and successful in its ambition to be so...

Well, yeah.  Lurid.

-Niklas Ã…kerblad-

A pair of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified trailers. With gameplay!

Finally.  This first one's your run-of-the-mill third-person action game trailer:

But this one is far more interesting.  It shows the player basically clearing a big swath of a level without ever firing a shot - everything is accomplished through squad commands, and a single levitation power used by the player-character.

They've clearly taken a lot of cues from Enemy Unknown, here, from the enemy names to the shield symbol that appears when you direct your units to move into cover to the percentage your units have to hit their target.

...which kinda' raises the question - how is this an improvement over Enemy Unknown, again?

Atlus is in trouble...

Atlus, who've given us incredible stuff like the Shin Megami Tensei series and Catherine - whose North American publishing arm Atlus USA lovingly localizes wonderful, weird fare like Samurai Western, Demon's Souls, Odin Sphere and the upcoming Dragon's Crown - is in trouble.
"Atlus Games' Index Corporation Files for Civil Rehabilitation Bankruptcy

The board of directors for Index Corporation, the company that owns and manages the Atlus brand of games, decided on Thursday to begin civil rehabilitation procedures, and it filed an application with the Tokyo District Court that same day. Civil rehabilitation is a relatively new form of bankruptcy procedures in Japan, having been passed into law in 1999. Index lists about 24.5 billion yen - about US$250 million - in debts.

The company plans to continue its operations under the supervision of the court and rebuild. It reported that recent sales in other countries did not increase, just as they expected. However, it anticipates that it will grow in social games and other areas of business with accelerating expansion. As a result, it is looking into selecting a sponsor or sponsors as quickly as possible to transfer its business operations and maintain their value.

Chairperson Masami Ochiai and President Yoshimi Ochiai intend to resign their positions.

Japan's Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission has been investigating Index for allegedly improper accounting via fictitious transactions. Specifically, Index is under suspicion of exaggerating revenues using round-trip transactions. SESC searched Index's headquarters in Tokyo, as well as its chairperson's home, earlier this month."
-Anime News Network- 
Thankfully, NeoGAFfer Mandoric, who seems to know his Japanese legalities, breaks it down right simple for us:
"It's definitely a reorganization, rather than liquidation or absorption. Index will continue operating, under the ownership of some combination of current management and current creditors. Think, say, GM or Chrysler."
Let's try to keep positive, here!  Lots of businesses have bounced back from bankruptcy, and Atlus intends to continue being productive until the bitter end, as they do what they can to save their company.  The odds of this affecting the upcoming North American releases of Shin Megami Tensei IV and Dragon's Crown are, hopefully, slim.

Fingers crossed!  We love you Atlus!

[update]  Atlus USA's Naoto Hiraoka replied to Kotaku's request for comment on the situation, and assures us everything will be fine:
"Currently, Index Digital Media, Inc. and the ATLUS brand are unaffected by the Index Corporation proceedings in Japan. We’re carrying on day-to-day activities, business as usual. Shin Megami Tensei IV and Dragon’s Crown are still releasing on July 16 and August 6 respectively, and we’re licensing and publishing third-party titles such as R.I.P.D: The Game and Daylight. We want to thank all of our fans for their outpouring of support."