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Soul Sacrifice Review

Soul Sacrifice’s penchant for mindful action distracts from its occasionally repetitive quests.

The Good

  • Forces you to make interesting decisions
  • The original and gloomy visual style stands out
  • A plethora of intriguing characters and side stories.

The Bad

  • Repetitive mission challenges
  • The main storyline falls flat in the middle.

Many games require decision making, but Soul Sacrifice emphasizes choice more than most. Everything, from the abilities you possess to the monsters you battle, is subject to choice: to save or to sacrifice? This notion is ingrained in both story and character progression, presenting you with limitations and dilemmas that make this grim monster-hunting game very appealing. Decision making alone isn’t the only reason to give Soul Sacrifice a try. It’s rich with evocative characters, has creatively fiendish enemy designs, and is coated with an effective layer of gloom and doom. Pleasingly, the captivating presentation and narration overshadow the game’s repetitive tendencies, and the weight of every decision makes the otherwise straightforward action a truly thought-provoking affair.

This flesh-chucking monstrosity is but a taste of the horrors within.

This flesh-chucking monstrosity is but a taste of the horrors within.

Before your journey begins, you’re locked away in a cage made from flesh and bone, awaiting sacrifice at the hand of the ultimate sorcerer, Magusar. A mysterious book, the chatty Librom, emerges from the remains of the sorcerer’s last victim. Part necronomicon and part snarky companion, Librom is your portal to the past of Magusar’s former partner, and through it, you experience Magusar’s rise to power. As the game’s quest hub, customization menu, and glossary, it’s an inventive approach that suits a portable game quite well. The lack of an overworld is odd at first, but since you’re a prisoner, it makes sense in context.

While reliving the life of a sorcerer once sworn to hunt possessed humans and animals, your primary charge is simple: defeat and sacrifice your enemies in order to rid the land of foul beasts. You trudge through rotten wastelands to frozen caves, casting spells, pummeling enemies, and dodging incoming attacks while managing your limited pool of resources. Every mission has clear-cut conditions; you must defeat a set number of common enemies, locate hidden items, or topple horrific archfiend juggernauts. In order to surmount the often difficult campaign missions, you’re often forced to beef up your character by undertaking optional Avalon Pact missions. This is unfortunate, since most Avalon Pact missions lack challenge or variety, especially in the first half of the game. It’s a blessing, then, that there are so many interesting side stories peppered throughout to distract you from the repetition at hand.

You head into every mission with a set of six abilities, or offerings, ranging from melee weapons to summon spells. You start with a small selection, but every mission rewards victory with new offerings based on your performance. An offering can turn your arm to stone, heal your party, trap your enemy, and even stop time. Without a stock of offerings, all you can do is run. Offerings can be used only a certain number of times during the course of a single quest, though sacrificing enemies and tapping into one-time-use environmental pools lets you replenish an individual offering’s cast count. If, however, you get sloppy and sacrifice all of a particular offering during the course of a mission, you must wait until the end before replenishing your ability to use it.

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

Coordinating the relationship between your various offerings is critical during the challenging archfiend battles, and losing access to just one is often enough to tip the scales in your enemies’ favor. You could carry more than one of a particular offering into battle, but it’s better to diversify your capabilities. Thankfully when you possess multiples of a single offering, you can sacrifice the extras to boost the cast count of another. Like most actions in Soul Sacrifice, this action carries ramifications. The decision to boost an offering’s cast count diminishes your resources for fusion, a process that lets you create completely new and advanced offerings. Fusing offerings isn’t critical to success, but it gives you a chance to delve a little deeper into the elemental variations for most of your existing inventory.

Once an enemy is defeated, it’s up to you to choose whether to save or sacrifice its soul, permanently boosting either your stamina or strength stat, respectively. Souls also act as replenishments during battle: sacrifices refill some of your offerings, and saved souls restore a bit of health. The decision usually comes down to your needs at the time, but the smart player will take the time to coordinate their decisions. Since your choices effect skill levels, you may find that too many snap decisions shape your character’s traits in ways you never intended. However, outside of a few pivotal instances, your decision bears little weight on the story at large.

While you don’t have equipment in the traditional sense, you can equip sigils, which are symbols carved into your right arm. When you defeat enemies and absorb their soul shards, new sigils are unlocked. Each sigil has two conditions attached, but the second becomes active only when you’ve struck the proper balance between sacrificing and saving your enemies, reflected by the affinity of your arm, and determined by your tendency to save or sacrifice.

Maybe if I play dead, the centaur-carriage will leave me alone.

Maybe if I play dead, the centaur-carriage will leave me alone.

Like gathering new offerings for fusion, you may find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to grind through old missions to acquire the right ingredients to produce a new sigil. That’s not so bad, but limiting certain abilities to your arm’s affinity seems unfair given how it’s managed. You have to spend resources on lowering your life or magic levels, and then replay missions in order level up the opposite levels. Sacrificing items and resources is one thing, but asking the player to sacrifice hours of hard work takes the notion of sacrifice a bit too far for the game’s own good, especially when you consider the repetitive nature of most missions.

Soul Sacrifice’s penchant for mindful action distracts from its occasionally repetitive quests.

By Peter Brown

Guacamelee! Review

Guacamelee! is so full of personality and challenging gameplay that it’s a shame it ever has to end.

The Good

  • Charming characters and dialogue
  • Flashy and nuanced hand-to-hand combat
  • Fantastic use of color
  • Great balance of comedy and drama.

The Bad

  • Mildly repetitive enemy designs and encounters.

Retro-game-homages are as popular as ever, but too many fail to capture the magic of their inspirations. To call Guacamelee! anything other than an homage is downright uninformed. However, it’s surprising just how well it manages to both cite its source material and use those inspirations to form a game with a fresh and distinct identity. Those in the know will quickly recognize hints of Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and even Portal, but these references never quite dominate the unlikely setting of a dimensionally disturbed re-creation of rural Mexico. They’ve inspired parts of the world, and to a larger extent, the gameplay, but Guacamelee stands tall thanks to its brilliant art style, witty writing, and a steady pace, of which the biggest flaw is that the fun comes to an end sooner than any game of this caliber should.

No time for tequila; Juan's a man on a mission.

No time for tequila; Juan’s a man on a mission.

Your adventure starts simply enough. As Juan Aquacave, a humble agave farmer and tequila distiller, your rise to luchadore-dom is fueled by the kidnapping of an old acquaintance turned recent love interest, the nameless daughter of El Presidente. The kidnapper from the Land of the Dead, Carlos Calaca, strikes during the Dia de los Muertos festival. Juan is ultimately banished to the Land of the Dead by Calaca; here, he meets the Guardian of the Mask, who bestows the legendary luchadore relic unto the humble farmer. Forthwith, Juan’s resurrected into the Land of the Living as a superpowered luchadore and sets off after his kidnapped love. Apart from the luchadore-themed wrapping, the damsel-in-distress scenario is a tired trope, to be sure, but the trite conflict between hero and kidnapper is merely a catalyst. It gets the game rolling, but the real driving force is Juan’s growth as a superhero.

His 2D crusade sees you ascending mountains, exploring caverns, and platforming among the tree-tops, but you’ll spend a lot of time smacking enemies around and tossing them into blunt objects along the way. From these two types of attacks spring dozens of opportunities for tactical and offensive variety. Combo attacking and juggling enemies in midair are encouraged, and the right approach lets Juan take out a half-dozen enemies before touching the ground. His skill set evolves so rapidly that it’s largely up to you to discover his hidden potential, but the game is good about teaching you the fundamentals of each maneuver by ramping up the challenges accordingly after each acquisition.

Sorry El Bano, you asked for it.

Sorry El Bano, you asked for it.

New moves and abilities are earned by discovering Choozo statues (blatant references to Metroid’s Chozo statues) strewn about the world. They belong to a grumpy yet affable goat shepherd, Juan’s eventual sage-like sensei, who imparts the knowledge of moves such as Olmec’s Headbutt and the Goat Climb, the likes of which expand your ability to explore your environment and manhandle esqueletos. Combat truly shines once you learn to zip up a wall, dash to uppercut an oncoming enemy, and toss their body into encroaching reinforcements, a delight that rarely gets old. Whether it’s the promise of new abilities, a laugh, or Juan’s next rumble, there’s always something in Guacamelee just around the corner that grabs your attention.

Though the progression of locales and challenges are paced well, accented by charming music and expressive colors, there are occasional dips when the action feels uninspired relative to the world around it. These moments are easy to spot: rather than introduce a new type of challenge, the game simply throws more enemies on the screen. Sometimes, it’s the small number of enemy types in a given area that contribute to the sense of repetition. Thankfully, these moments are usually fleeting.

Juan hates skeletons, but he especially hates conquistador skeletons.

Juan hates skeletons, but he especially hates conquistador skeletons.

A few hours into your adventure, in a touch reminiscent of the action platformer Outland, Juan earns the ability to teleport between the lands of the living and the dead. The two worlds bring different moods and experiences to the table, defined by their respective soundtracks and color palettes, but certain enemies and objects are hidden between dimensions as well. The ability to alter your surroundings is an increasingly important component of combat, and it turns already difficult platforming sections into true tests of reflexes and intuition.

Though it demands precision, Guacamelee hardly punishes failure. In fact, it practically encourages you to take chances by being so forgiving. When Juan plummets off a cliff or platform, he’s magically whisked back to safety without penalty. If he happens to run out of health, he’s revived at the last checkpoint, the frequently encountered shops that auto-save your game and refill Juan’s health. Guacamelee’s meager consequences keep the action moving at a steady clip, but considering the exacting nature of the game’s design, you can’t help but feel that there should be some penalty for sloppiness. No game should rely on punishment to determine the length of the experience, but in the case of Guacamelee, the lack of expendable lives or a game-over state contributes to the unfortunate brevity of Juan’s tale.

Up, up, and away, esqueleto scum.

Up, up, and away, esqueleto scum.

Defeating the game once opens the hard difficulty setting, but the lure of collectibles may be reason enough to revisit earlier sections of the game. If it were only to fulfill obsessive-compulsive tendencies, backtracking may not seem particularly important, but by hinting at multiple endings, the underwhelming default conclusion justifiably compels your continued search. Your newfound abilities go a long way toward uncovering all of Guacamelee’s secrets, but it takes a keen eye to find every last item hidden among the caves and treetops alike.

All things considered, Guacamelee is one of the strongest games on the PlayStation Network, period. The responsive controls and a grin-inducing sense of humor make it near impossible to put down, and the expressive use of color will warm the hearts of even the most cynical among us. It’s chock-full of pop-culture references, yet it doesn’t feel patronizing when there’s a nod to your favorite 8-bit game, thanks to the provided twist of the world’s luchadore-obsessed culture. When Guacamelee isn’t trying to make you laugh, occasional moments of drama and intense action fill you with a sense of purpose and emphasize Juan’s triumphant rise to superhero status. After hitting so many high-notes, Guacamelee’s conclusion is a bittersweet farewell, but every adventure, even the best of them, eventually comes to an end.

By Peter Brown

MLB 13: The Show Review

A scrunched-down version of its big-brother PlayStation 3 game, MLB 13: The Show for the PS Vita offers good, not great, handheld baseball.

The Good

  • Continues to offer a ton of options
  • Plays a great game of baseball on the diamond, with superb pitcher-batter duels
  • Addictive Road to the Show mode of play
  • Cross-platform support to take your PS3 cloud saves on the road.

The Bad

  • Mechanics like Pulse Pitching not properly scaled down for Vita
  • Long load times and visual slowdown.

Compare the backs of the boxes, and MLB 13: The Show looks pretty much identical on both the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita. Get into the actual games, however, and some substantial differences pop up when it comes to playability. Where the PS3 game is the real deal, another fantastic baseball game that walks the line better than ever between simulation realism and on-the-diamond action, the handheld Vita version falls short in a few key areas. You get a very good game of baseball here, due to the huge number of options and attention to detail in every aspect of hitting, pitching, and fielding. Still, scrunching the big-brother console version down to handheld size causes a few problems that feel like they could have been avoided.

Want to take The Show on the road? The Vita version lets you access PS3 cloud saves.

Want to take The Show on the road? The Vita version lets you access PS3 cloud saves.

For the most part, however, MLB 13 plays pretty similarly on both systems. Virtually all of the modes of play have been shifted to the Vita mostly intact. So you get all of the core experiences that the game has to offer, including franchise and season play, online options, the role-playing Road to the Show, and the new Postseason playoffs and The Show Live (which lets you follow the real 2013 Major League season as it unfolds). Beginner mode is available as well, providing a good if overly simplistic entry to video game baseball for rookies. Ad hoc mode is available for local multiplayer. Just about everything has been cut back, though. Animations aren’t as varied on the field. Broadcast booth commentary is down to the odd line from play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian. Player creation options have been reduced, so you don’t have as many little frills to tweak when crafting your wannabe in Road to the Show.

These cuts don’t initially seem like huge sacrifices to make for the big plus of portability. But the omissions are notable if you’re also playing the PS3 version, and they add up over time to give you the impression that this is something of a cut-rate edition of the game. You might find this perfectly acceptable, especially when you want to link up with the PS3 version of the game and download games from the cloud on the road. (Direct play between the platforms is supported only in Home Run Derby mode.) It is undeniably nifty to catch up on a few games with your Road to the Show guy when away from home or when your main gaming TV in the living room is being occupied by other folks in the household.

The game looks great, but has a tendency to slow down when a lot is happening at once.

The game looks great, but has a tendency to slow down when a lot is happening at once.

In spite of being stripped down in comparison to its big brother, The Show feels as though it still bit off more than it could chew. Load times are quite long, especially when playing Road to the Show with a position player where you’re taking only a few at-bats and fielding attempts in each game. Visual details overload performance, as well. The great-looking graphics and countless animations crammed onto the card slow the frame rate down. There are no big hitches, but the consistent frame slowdown is noticeable, especially in the field.

Getting down on the diamond lets you forget about some of these problems. MLB 13 plays a very good, very addictive game of baseball. Pitching and batting are very challenging and realistic. You have to work your pitches on the mound and pay close attention when in the batter’s box. The pitcher-batter duel is uncannily realistic. You regularly get into wars, trying to fool batters with pitch type, placement, and speed. And then you get into the same battles on the other side of the equation, fighting off enemy hurlers doing the same thing to you when you’re at bat. Ball physics are brilliantly realized. The ball always moves in a realistic fashion, whether coming off the bat, coming out of a shortstop’s hand, or ricocheting off the pitcher’s skull.

A scrunched-down version of its big-brother PlayStation 3 game, MLB 13: The Show for the PS Vita offers good, not great, handheld baseball.

By Brett Todd

Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable Review

Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable never gets deeper than shooting and looting, but it succeeds because it does it so well.

The Good

  • Simple and fun arcade shooter gameplay with lots of huge monsters and explosions
  • New unlockable Pale Wing character offers significantly different gameplay
  • Five difficulty modes offer plenty of replay value
  • Four-player cooperative mode makes wanton destruction even more fun.

The Bad

  • Simplicity and repetition of core shooting gameplay grow tiresome in long sittings
  • Too pricey at $40.

Earth Defense Force 2017 has a lot of bugs. They rear their ugly heads just seconds after you select one of the five difficulty settings, and they hound you with increasing intensity as you progress through 60 levels. It’s a good thing, then, that they’re not the technical sort. Much as in Earth Defense Force 2017′s original release in 2007, these are bugs of the Japanese monster movie variety, the kind that scamper up tall buildings and inspire campy lines in a nation’s top generals. You spend hours and hours blasting them and the robots and spaceships that follow with bullets, missiles, and the occasional laser, and once the dust clears, you rush in to pick up increasingly beastly weapons amid the rubble of a wounded Earth. Even now, the game retains some of the problems that made it such a flawed classic in 2007, but the portability of the Vita elevates its simple, addictive thrills to new heights.

They might not look like much, but they’re sure fun to shoot.

They might not look like much, but they’re sure fun to shoot.

There’s a story of an interstellar invasion in 2017 buried under that rubble, but even in its best moments it makes cheesy sci-fi movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman sound as though they were penned by Nabokov. It’s best when it’s situational, spurred by the arrival of new monstrosities. Soldiers cry out, apparently astonished by the sight of a small enemy saucer even though the Rhode Island-size mothership has been hovering overhead the entire time. A newscaster shrieks as the aliens interrupt her broadcast. In the earliest moments that same newscaster announces that the government has decided to call the cranky visitors the “ravagers,” even though it’s not clear yet if their intentions are hostile or peaceful. Beyond that, though, the repeated yelps of unlucky non-player character comrades assume a regrettable monotony, although the cries of “Exterminate them!” deliver some amusement once you realize that many of the antagonists are giant ants and spiders.

And exterminate them you will. Earth Defense Force 2017 exists merely to celebrate the primal pleasures of looting, triggering explosions, and annihilating alien hordes, and therefore it wastes no time toying with stealth missions or similar undertakings that may have provided some variety. To its credit, it does this job well. You can take two weapons into battle, ranging from predictable assault rifles to non-rechargeable laser guns that cut through stacked colonies of alien ants like butter. Missiles and rocket launchers level entire buildings, whether high-rise offices or soaring skyscrapers reminiscent of Toronto’s CN Tower. Fittingly (considering the whole bug thing), Earth Defense Force 2017 thrives on lobbing swarms of ravagers at you, easing you into the fray with scattered enemies and then making you contend with onslaughts that would look at home in a clip from Starship Troopers. It even keeps you in the thick of it, since wading in among the slaughter is often the only way to pick up the scores of health, armor, and weapon upgrades that drop from your defeated enemies.

Pale Wing and the invaders don't always see eye to eye.

Pale Wing and the invaders don’t always see eye to eye.

All this was true of the 2007 release as well, but the Vita release of 2017 Vita brings with it some welcome surprises. For one, an online multiplayer component that supports up to four players fills the spot of the original’s split-screen cooperative mode, and the resulting camaraderie captures the impression of intense battles better than the original. The morsel-size missions, regarded as a slight drawback in the original, also complement the Vita’s portability by allowing quick bouts of bug slaughter while on the move. The big attraction, however, is the ability to unlock the Pale Wing soldier first seen in 2005′s Global Defense Force, whose use of a jetpack in place of the standard jump lends a welcome verticality that manages to imbue the normally ground-based gameplay with an entirely different feel. It’s a shame, perhaps, that you have to play through all 60 levels to unlock her, but she plays differently enough to keep the gameplay fun on a second playthrough.

That’s important, because that’s when the unrelenting sameness of Earth Defense Force 2017 starts to weigh heavily on the experience. It’s not a pretty game, for one, and its “remastered” graphics mark only a marginal improvement over the original’s visuals. Here, too, you find a lack of visual variety. Aside from minor differences like sunsets and the general layout, every level contains dull urban landscapes that many online teams level into oblivion within minutes anyway. The cast of enemies is frightfully limited, and boss-like encounters usually feature little more than recolored and resized versions of the normal variety of enemies. Other issues mar the experience, such as the way tanks and other vehicles move so ponderously that they encourage remaining on foot. The menus (which you can also use with a finicky touch interface) are cumbersome and outdated. The frame rate still drops when too many bugs crowd the screen at once, although it’s nowhere near as troublesome as it was in the original release.

Advanced alien technology is no match for the indomitable human spirit!

Advanced alien technology is no match for the indomitable human spirit!

And yet, for all that, EDF 2017 manages to remain good, stupid fun for hours as long as it’s not taken in one sitting. The way that stronger weapons drop only on higher difficulties encourages multiple playthroughs of the same levels for better loot, and the basics of shooting and movement take only a few seconds to master with the intuitive control scheme. It’s a pity, then, that it’s so pricey. Forty dollars is a lot to spend for such simplistic and repetitive gameplay, but its position as one of the few shooters on the Vita goes a long way toward making up for this considerable shortcoming. Couple that consideration with its highly enjoyable multiplayer component and its inclusion of a fun new playable character, and Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable emerges as a clear superior to its faulty but beloved predecessor.

By Leif Johnson

Thomas Was Alone Review

Thomas Was Alone humanizes nondescript squares, creating an affecting and satisfying adventure.

The Good

  • Creative storytelling with lifelike characters
  • Inventive obstacles require smart coordination
  • Cohesive soundtrack and visual design.

The Bad

  • Rarely offers challenge.

Human beings suffer from loneliness far too frequently. But whereas such a feeling is all too common for the average person, it’s a profound development when it surfaces in Thomas Was Alone. Artificial intelligence isn’t supposed to exhibit human emotions, so when Thomas is stricken with these desperate pangs, he proves there’s much more to him than lifeless 1s and 0s.This charming adventure heads to the PlayStation Network after debuting on the PC last year, and the puzzling journey of colorful quadrilaterals remains just as fresh and poignant as before.

Thomas is one lonely rectangle.

Thomas is one lonely rectangle.

Everything starts with Thomas. A rogue artificial intelligence in a program gone awry, Thomas unexpectedly gains consciousness in a foreign land. Slowly, he becomes cognizant of his abilities. He can slide across the ground, fall dizzying heights without taking a scratch, and hop over moderate obstacles. It’s not much, but the stages he finds himself in gradually grow more complex, forcing him to jump with more precision or worm his way up foreboding passageways. Once he orients himself with his surroundings, he happens upon a friend, and Thomas is no longer alone.

Every new character you meet in the adventure is either a square or a rectangle, each sporting different abilities you have to harness. Chris is not much use early on. The other characters have to form makeshift bridges, ladders, and barges to get him safely to the exit, but he eventually makes his worth known. That small passage, a mere sliver in a rock face, is too narrow for anyone to fit in but Chris. You might have cursed him earlier for slowing the group down, but you find that he’s indispensable at times. Even the less-abled characters have a purpose, and you want to help them not only to usher them to the next stage, but because you grow attached to them.

Rising water is no match for the buoyant Claire.

Rising water is no match for the buoyant Claire.

Strong writing creates strong bonds. Narration plays out during the action, so you listen to a voice-over explaining the mind-set of one or more of the characters as you jump up platforms and avoid spikes. At times you laugh, such as when the deluded Claire believes her ability to float makes her a superhero, but mostly you get absorbed in their stories. The shapes who yearn for companionship make you appreciate their humanity while the ones who want to be alone have a quiet strength. At certain points, a character is lost in a portal and the desperate cries from his or her companions resonate. There’s a strong narrative foundation that meshes wonderfully with the action, creating a gripping adventure that continually draws you deeper into the tale.

Characters join and leave your party without so much as a goodbye. But you can’t lament their loss for long; you must carry on. Switching between characters is necessary to complete stages because even the surest jumper cannot complete this journey alone. You may have to stack blocks to give a boost to a less athletic character, or pile the whole group on the back of the lone swimmer in your group. Different characters and obstacles do a great job of giving variety to the challenges that stand before you. Eventually, gravity becomes a suggestion rather than a law, spikes become as dangerous as the acidic water, and jet streams prove that blocks are not the slightest bit aerodynamic. If squares had toes, the characters would surely be kept on them.

The inventiveness is always welcomed, but ideas aren’t fully realized before a new one is introduced. Because of that quick transition and the smooth difficulty curve that comes with every new obstacle, there is rarely any genuine challenge to force you to pause and reflect. Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle platformer where you’re rarely stumped. The character traits are so straightforward, and the obstacles present danger in only one way, so you almost always know exactly what you need to do to progress, and it’s just a matter of rounding up the cubes and setting off. This easiness doesn’t detract from the experience while you’re playing, because you care about getting your friends to safety, but their victorious shouts don’t resonate quite as strongly given that it took such little effort to complete these tasks.

Following gravitational laws is for squares.

Following gravitational laws is for squares.

The singular focus of Thomas Was Alone is admirable. Every element ties wonderfully together, creating a cohesive experience that never stumbles. The incisive narration successfully covers a wide range of emotions. From sarcasm to desperation and anger to hopefulness, these diminutive blocks embody a strikingly complex array of personalities. A dynamic musical score further complements this refreshing adventure. The songs effortlessly drift from somber to uplifting, matching the tone set by the steadfast narrator. There is so much life breathed into this simple-looking adventure that you forget that you’ve befriended a group of rectangles rather than fully realized humans.

Thomas Was Alone is a modest adventure that makes great use of its sparse elements to draw you in. In the transition to the Vita, touchscreen functionality has been added that makes swapping between characters much easier. Furthermore, there’s downloadable content for those who don’t want this journey to end. For $2 more, you get 20 new levels, along with new narration and music that’s just as exquisite as what accompanied the main adventure. Dexterity rather than ingenuity is needed to progress, which gives these new levels a more action-heavy slant than Thomas’ cerebral story. Short and sweet without any filler, Thomas Was Alone is a worthwhile experience that rises above its basic mechanics to prove heartfelt and engaging in unexpected ways.

By Tom Mc Shea

Looking at the Future of Video Games

The 2012 Game Developers Conference is in full swing this week, sprawling across all three buildings of San Francisco’s Moscone Center. While lots of interesting things happen each year at GDC, we realize they’re often very dry and technical GDC is an swap meet where the people who make the games you love trade ideas, not a convention like PAX or a trade show like E3. In other words, you shouldn’t expect many huge announcements or in-depth hands-on with hot upcoming titles this week.

Instead, 1UP’s editors will each be tackling appointments, lectures, and interviews from their own individual perspective and reporting back to you on the angle they’ve each elected to explore. From the challenges of preparing for next-gen hardware to the role of narrative, we’re talking to the people who make games about the future of their work. What’s in store for them, and by extension, you? That’s what we aim to find out this week.


Can Games be Friendly to Women?

Unfortunate trends continue to make gaming hostile towards female players. Bob Mackey investigates what it will take to change this.

OP-ED: With Mass Effect 3, BioWare Snuggles up to Inclusivity

There’s much more to Mass Effect 3′s same-sex romance options than simply courting controversy.

Metanet’s Mare Sheppard Takes on Sexism in the Industry

The N+ developer explains why it’s easy to treat the symptoms instead of the underlying problem.

Harvest Moon Creator Yasuhiro Wada on His Game’s Cross-Gender Appeal

The farm sim vet shares his thoughts on winning over both sexes.

The Free-to-Play Minecraft-Style Kickstarter-Funded Future of PC Games

What do developers at GDC2012 view as the actual future for this most vaunted of platforms? Thierry Nguyen investigates.

MechWarrior Online Adds Depth to the Series

How the upcoming free-to-play game ends the series’ history with exploits.

We Finally See Sony’s Massive (and Free) MMOFPS Planetside 2

A quick look at the current alpha reveals a big shooter full of players, customization, and microtransactions.

Crazy Facts We Just Learned About Portal 2

Valve’s post-mortem on Portal 2 details random quirks like smoking mannequins to re-writing Garfield knock-offs to the Morgan Freeman Sphere.

What Can the Next Generation Learn from Gaming History? 

As we move into the next generation of consoles, Jeremy Parish asks how the classics of bygone days shape the new age of game design.

How Gravity Rush’s Designers Took the Third Option

As the American vs. Japanese game design rift widens, Sony proves it a false dichotomy.

Super Mario 3D Land: Game Design Before Fan Service

Why can’t Mario fly or stomp bad guys with Kuribo’s Shoe? Director Koichi Hayashida explains.

How to Resuscitate a Dead but Beloved Franchise

Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s designer on bringing a fan-favorite back from the grave

Square Enix Localization Looks to the Future

From spoony bards to mog clocks, how Square is tackling the translation needs of the HD era.

SimCity Returns as One Part Simulation, One Part Stump Speech

Maxis’ reboot goes all-in on the political commentary.

Keiji Inafune’s Charlie Sheen Moment

Ex-Capcom designer discusses his plan to restore glory to Japan’s games industry.

Let Me Tell My Own Damn Story

MyCheats editor Marty Sliva pursues his belief that games don’t need to tell a story, but rather supply the tools for us to create our own personal narratives.

Why Does Asura’s Wrath Not Trust Me?

The action spectacle stifles all user creativity in its aim to echo anime.

The Stanley Parable is a Crowning Achievement in Metafiction

How a Source mod moves storytelling forward in video games.

The Future of Indie Games

Managing editor Matt Leone spot-checks some of the most exciting small independent games and developers, then looks forward to what’s coming next.

The Prototypes Behind Journey

Thatgamecompany gives us an exclusive look at the prototypes they developed behind the scenes when making Journey.

Contrast: A Portal-Inspired Puzzle Game About Shadows

A new indie game centers itself on one mechanic — the idea that you can move in 3D or flatten yourself against walls in 2D.

Dyad Looks to be the Underdog of GDC

A musical slingshot tunnel racing PSN game mixes genres better than most.

Making Way for the Next Generation

It’s the year 2012, and we’re in the seventh generation of our current console cycle. Associate editor Jose Otero is convinced that this extraordinary period could be coming to a close soon, as rumors continue to point to the possibility of new hardware from Sony and Microsoft. Is it too soon to pull the trigger and move home consoles forward?

Next Xbox Rumored to Lack a Disc Drive, But is That So Shocking?

A new report suggests the 360′s successor will use solid state media in place of discs.

The Importance of Teaching Proper Game History

Educators argue games studies courses need to reassess the subject of game history.

Quantic Dreams’ Kara Demo Gives a Promising Glimpse Into the Future of Motion Capture Technology

The Heavy Rain creator’s latest tech demo showcases impressive results.

A Quick Look Back at Heavy Rain in the Shadow of Kara

Quantic Dream’s David Cage on if he’d change anything if making Heavy Rain again (nope), if he thinks the game would work on Vita (yep), and more.

Gaming's Vanishing Middle Class

As the industry polarizes toward insanely expensive blockbusters and free-to-play social games, Ryan Winterhalter asks if gaming’s creative, fertile middle ground is a thing of the past.

What Do You Want to See in the Deadly Premonition Director’s Cut?

Would smoothing over flaws destroy the charm of SWERY’s b-movie masterpiece?

How to Handle the Internet’s Worst Trolls

One developer explains how to make a deal with the devil.

The Radical Transparency of SimCity

Why Maxis’ new game is simpler, easier, and deeper than its predecessors.

How Saints Row: The Third Nearly Failed

Design Director Scott Phillips explains the lessons learned from the game’s development.

By 1UP Staff

OP-ED: Activision Has a Point When Defending Itself Against Claims It Doesn’t Innovate

Skylanders

Between DICE taking place last week and Tim Schafer successfully turning to Kickstarter to fund a Double Fine-developed graphic adventure, there has been a lot of talk recently about the role publishers serve in the videogame industry. There is the belief among many people that publishers do little more than stifle innovation, a suggestion Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg takes issue with.

During a panel at DICE, Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter made the case that today’s publishing model isn’t good for for the industry. Publishers are opposed to risks and many shy away from bringing out games unlikely to sell millions of units, he said, also adding, “We are getting fewer choices as consumers because financial guys are taking over. Financial guys are making the decisions.”

Research group EEDAR’s Jesse Divnich countered that publishers allow for innovation to be brought to gamers. “Innovation doesn’t occur at the publisher level, but they do put it in front of a mass market so that [the masses] can experience it,” he said. “Your Limbos, Braids, Bastions — those games wouldn’t have been successful without a publisher.”

The latter is a sentiment Hirshberg would likely appreciate. Speaking with Gamasutra, he argued, “I didn’t see the panel, but there are two things. One, we were one of the few publishers that launched a new intellectual property [Skylanders] this year, and not only launched it well, but in the top 10 games of the year. And we launched a fairly ambitious and entrepreneurial digital service for our Call of Duty community that took two years to develop, that there was no proven model for.

“It’s simply a fallacy to say that we’re not innovating, or that we’re not attempting to bring new IP and new ideas to the industry. What we are doing is making those choices very carefully, and focusing on areas where we think we have something unique to contribute, and a real competitive advantage.”

Activision has moved towards supporting fewer titles, but each of those tends to be much bigger than the average game we’ve seen in the past (Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, etc.). Hirshberg said this is a result of what gamers are doing, where they “are voluntarily spending more and more time with the games that they love, and that by nature drives you to innovate within those franchises, as opposed to maybe the behavior we saw a few years ago, where people grazed more, and sampled things from many different categories, and moved on. Now you have really long-standing relationships between gamers and the games that they love, and to an extent, we’re responding to that behavior.”

Call of Duty Elite

It’s hardly going out on a limb to suggest Activision is smart for having gone in the direction it has given its phenomenal financial success, but I do think it does not deserve to be accused of lacking innovation. Risk averse, sure, and calculating in a way that can be frustrating to a segment of gamers, but a lack of innovation doesn’t seem correct. Skylanders is a hell of an idea and has rightly made the company a great deal of money. Call of Duty Elite is really smart — there exists a market of gamers who buy a game or two year and are clamoring for more Call of Duty content to play until the next one is available. And there are clearly people willing to pay for that content, as evidenced by there being more than 1.5 million paying Elite subscribers (even though many of the franchise’s haters would like to think paying for new content is… foolish, to put it kindly). Even Electronic Arts has admitted on more than one occasion that Activision did well with Elite.

It’s not surprising Activision is accused of this sort of thing; it has undeniably done things to draw the ire of gamers such as refusing to publish low-margin games or those that can’t be “exploited” on an annual basis. It’s one thing to approach publishing in such a manner, and you could argue it is simply good business, but given the way it attempted to block the release of Brutal Legend by filing a lawsuit it’s easy to see why many gamers have an anti-Activision attitude. Even Double Fine’s Tim Schafer, who once famously called Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick a “total prick” (by accident, mind you), seems to still hold somewhat of a grudge even when defending publishers in general.

“I’m not vilifying or saying publishers are evil, or that they’re not doing what they should be doing,” he told IndustryGamers. “It’s just it’s inherent in that set up that they risk a lot of their own money and, therefore, they need to invest in mitigating that risk and there’s a cost or a burden with that risk mitigation that affects development in a negative way. But I don’t think that they’re jerks — well some of them are, the ones that sue us. But, there are great people at the publishers, they’re making a lot of money, they’re doing the right thing for themselves.”

There are other reasons for the anti-Activision sentiment among gamers, namely the way many would argue it ran Guitar Hero into the ground by insisting upon annual retail releases. Even when it was apparent downloadable content could have more than sufficed, boxed products — complete with all the plastic hardware — were released year after year until the band genre had been played out. Some would say the same thing is bound to happen with Call of Duty, although with each new iteration topping the previous year’s sales records, there are no signs of that happening yet.

I do wish Double Fine, for instance, had a choice other than resorting to asking fans for help to fund an adventure game and that a company like Activision would be more willing to back a game which might not have annualized franchise potential. But between Elite and Skylanders, I think it’s hard to claim Activision is completely against innovation — that innovation just needs to have moneymaker potential.

By Chris Pereira

The Simpsons Visit the Expensive Electronic Entertainment Expo

The Simpsons E4

This week’s episode of The Simpsons (the series’ 492nd overall) featured an obvious take on the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known to most as E3. Following up on previous Surprise Dad Days like Cemetery Paintball and Go-Karts on Real Roads, Homer Simpson decided to take his kids to E4: the Expensive Electronic Entertainment Expo.

There were references all over the place, starting out with statues of the Master Chief, a Big Daddy, and a football (and chicken leg)-wielding John Madden. From there we get to see Furious Fliers, a version of Angry Birds that goes horribly wrong when an angry bird is sent into an under-construction children’s hospital (complete with direct-from-Angry-Birds sound effects).

The Simpsons Furious Fliers

Once inside the convention hall thanks to their VIP passes, the game references come in quick succession. There was Grand Theft Scratchy: Itchy City Stories; Cosmic Wars, a take on Star Wars; several varieties of Blocko (a take on Lego) including Cosmic Wars and Angelica Button; World of Krustcraft; Jalo; Shaun White: Time Snowboarder; Dig Dug: Revelations (a pretty funny knock on all of the games with that subtitle); Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life Online; Driver’s License 2: License to Drive; Assassin’s Creed: Summer of Love; Human Centipede; Q-Bert: Origins (another example of too-many-games-have-this-subtitle); Earthland Realms 2: The Outing of the Elves; Big Super Happy Fun Fun Game; Medal of Duty; and ZiiHop, where you sit on an exercise ball.

Systems included GameStation, ProtoVision, Ybox 360, Funtendo’s brand-new Zu Zii, and the coin-operated GameStation 3. Company names included Electronic Crafts, Chalmskinn Interactive, and Bongo Games.

The Simpsons Guts of War

Only two games were given much screen time. Guts of War II: Entrails of Intestinox was a God of War-inspired action game featuring attacks like “colon slash” and “rectum kill.” One of the developers was on hand to boast, “We’ve made a game that’ll reward the hardcore gamer with hundreds and hundreds of hours of…” before being cut off by Bart, who managed to beat the game in almost no time at all. Unfortunately the dev made no mention of whether the game is “easy to play but hard to master.”

The game we see Lisa play was Marching Band, where players stomp their feet and play either the saxophone or clarinet while trying to keep the crowd’s enthusiasm up. After clearing the first level, the second level consists of studying for a chemistry test during the twelve-hour bus ride home.

This isn’t the first time The Simpsons has parodied videogames; The Simpsons Game was overflowing with parodies, references, and homages. The aforementioned Grand Theft Scratchy was among the games that was to be in there, only Grand Theft Auto maker Rockstar was displeased and the name ended up being dropped.

If you missed the episode and want to catch it online, it won’t be available on Hulu for almost another week, unless you’re a Dish Network subscriber. For the rest of us, it’ll be up on November 21.

Source: GameSetWatch

The Simpsons E4

By Chris Pereira

How Gravity Rush’s Designers Took the Third Option

The existential crisis facing the Japanese game industry lurked beneath the surface of this year’s Game Developers Conference with uncomfortable omnipresence, often giving a sense of Japanese designers coming to San Francisco humbly to take notes on what sells in the U.S., only to be scorned and derided for their trouble. Of course, it wasn’t really so dire as all that, but one could certainly be forgiven for walking away with that impression.

So it should come as little surprise that, like many Japanese devs at GDC, Gravity Rush’s Yoshiaki Yamaguchi devoted a fair amount of his panel to the conundrum of appealing to both Japanese and American audiences. Unlike many designers, though, Yamaguchi’s team side-stepped the conventional wisdom that games have to carry a conventional, realistic “American” feel or an anime-inspired “Japanese” feel. Rather than simply falling into either camp, the creators of Gravity Rush have chosen to draw upon a third option: Bande dessinée, or French comics.

“I felt that games these days are starting to look too much the same,” said Yamaguchi. “They either use a realistic style or an anime style…. There’s art that looks real, and art that feels real, and I feel bande dessinées is better suited to the latter.”

Going European certainly isn’t unheard of in non-European games, of course; the Professor Layton series is defined by its warm, Ghibli-esque visual style. Yamaguchi, however, very specifically drew inspiration from French illustrators Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Enki Bilal in order to create a visual style of which it would be (as Yamaguchi says) “difficult to determine the country of origin.”

And Gravity Rush is a truly stunning game. Not only does its gameplay appear novel — applying the gravity-inverting mechanics of games like VVVVVV to an open, three-dimensional world — its style is striking. It combines polygons with cel-shading, painterly effects, and highly saturated unconventional color schemes. It looks like nothing else on the market, even within the Western indie space, and makes a strong case for PlayStation Vita’s merit as a platform.


“We sought to strike a balance between realism and drawing, creating harmony with the CG,” said Yamaguchi. “But of course simply focusing on graphics will not move the audience… it’s like moving different strands of string to weave a tapestry.”

The team’s solution was to create something they call a “living background,” environments that create the “sensation that the character actually exists in that space.

“Games can do something that novels and movies can’t,” Yamaguchi said. “The player can interact with them. The concept is that the world that exists here is not simply a picture, but a living, breathing entity. The environment must convey information to the player; when players do not receive this information, they start to ignore their surroundings. As soon as the player starts to think of the background as a picture, they’ll stop paying attention to it.” Due to the nature of Gravity Rush’s gameplay (which sees players flipping heroine Kat’s personal sense of gravity across a variety of axes, allowing her to traverse any surface above a certain size), the team felt it essential to get Kat to look like she belonged within the world she inhabits. The illustrated-yet-natural style of bande dessinée served as the creators’ waypoint for creating this synthesis. At a time when rhetoric about the origins and nature of games so deeply polarizes the industry, it’s a pleasure to see someone approach their work from a different angle — and to come up with such an intriguing creation in the process.




GDC 2012: What Can the Next Generation Learn from Gaming History?

1UP editor-in-chief Jeremy Parish’s mission at this year’s Game Developers Conference is informed by his enthusiasm for new ideas and affection for the games he grew up playing. Is it possible to march forward while occasionally glancing back? That’s the question he’s investigating this week.

By Jeremy Parish

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