Tagged: Metroidvania

The Top 10 Games of 2013: A Personal List

2013 was a watershed year in gaming. It was a year that saw countless developers, whether swimming in oceans of cash or struggling to pay rent on studio apartments, pouring their best efforts into an overabundance of amazing experiences that, frankly, the gaming community at large simply didn’t deserve. With such a glut of unforgettable games released over the past twelve months, the act of declaring a definitive top 10 list comes off at best as an exercise in absurdity,  and it’s with that thought in mind that I present a list of the ten games I enjoyed the most in 2013.

10. BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360)

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BioShock Infinite wasn’t the best AAA action game I played this year, nor was it the most visually or mechanically impressive, with textures right out of the pre-dawn ages (circa 2006) and artificial intelligence that doesn’t try even half as hard as the splicers in the original BioShock. But Irrational sure knows how to paint a picture. From its haunting opening moments involving a choral arrangement of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to its shrewd commentary on the time we’ve all wasted on fruitless pursuits, BioShock Infinite is a shining example of this generation’s shift from games as games to games as art, and for that, it’s a game I think everyone should experience.

9. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)

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Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is a testament to the players-over-profit design ethic that’s guided Nintendo over the past three decades: give players a simple goal and let them have fun accomplishing it. With its spooky environments, deliberately crafted environmental puzzles and emphasis on physical comedy, Dark Moon feels like a cross between a classic Sierra adventure game and a Saturday morning cartoon, and I still can’t help cracking up when I think about Luigi’s reactions to the various spiteful spooks that haunt him through the game’s 5 mansions. Pure joy, through and through.

8. Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale (3DS)

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As we go breathlessly from day to day, trying not to collapse under the often maddeningly complex state of being known as adulthood, it’s easy to forget how simple life once was. When making friends was no more complicated than saying “hello” to a new kid on the playground. When storm drains were secret portals to the magical and mysterious. When the future was defined not by the ability to pay rent on time, but by the infinite possibilities borne from our dreams. If you’ve forgotten what that feels like and you’d like get it back, Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale will make you remember.

7. Guacamelee (PS Vita)

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DrinkBox Studios nailed the Metroidvania formula with Guacamelee, with its vast, interconnected environments to explore, secret collectibles hidden everywhere, and plenty of sequence-breaking exploits for speedrunners to take advantage of. But what sets it apart from countless other Super Metroid wannabees is its unique, lovingly humorous take on Mexican mythology (you play as a recently-deceased farmer-turned-luchador, on a quest to save El Presidente’s Daughter from a sombrero’d skeleton with plans to merge the lands of the living and the dead.) Also, those snazzy, sassy trumpet anthems. When I reviewed the game in April, I called it “quite possibly the best game ever released on a PlayStation platform,” which apparently led to the review being featured on the PlayStation Blog. I stand by that assessment. If you love open-ended platformers, you won’t find better outside of a Nintendo console.

6. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)

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I didn’t review Animal Crossing: New Leaf this year, because I was busy packing all my earthly possessions and moving my family from California to New York when it came out. And I’m honestly not sure how I could have reviewed it, because it’s been kind of like a weird parallel to my own life this year — one in which all my neighbors are furries and I only have to pay bills when I feel like it. But in all seriousness, New Leaf has kind of been like the gaming equivalent of Chicken Soup for the Soul for me over the past six months… a warm blanket to wrap myself in during the extended periods of self doubt and loneliness that accompanied the biggest change I’ve ever made in my life. My wife and I are finally, slowly starting to make friends in New York, but for awhile, this (and FaceTime) were the closest things I had to human interaction. It’s hard to meet new people, but even when you’re at your lowest, Isabelle will always be waiting with a smile.

5. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D (3DS)

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Super Mario 3D Land is my favorite Mario platformer ever, so you’d logically expect to see Super Mario 3D World somewhere on this list, right? Wrong. As much fun as I had with the game (a metric ton, I assure you!), it was on the wrong platform, and the lack of stereo 3D really dampened my enthusiasm for it after the 500th death caused by my inability to judge space within the game. Similarly, Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii was a beautiful game that was rendered almost unplayable by Nintendo’s insistence on shoehorning motion controls into the experience. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D eradicates those issues by giving the game the traditional control scheme it always deserved. Both in terms of artistry and game design, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of any other 2D platformer on the 3DS, even outclassing the three legendary SNES games that preceded it. The new levels and optional easier difficulty level are just icing on the banana bread.

4. Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

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The Fire Emblem games have always been one of Nintendo’s best kept secrets – expertly tuned turned-based strategy bolstered by well-crafted dialogue, a diverse cast of characters, and stirring musical scores from industry veteran Yuka Tsujiyoko. And though the story in Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t particularly original, it transcends this limitation by inserting players directly into the narrative and trusting them to fill in the details through the relationships they forge and the decisions they make. Add to that a ton of non-essential missions, copious DLC, and dozens upon dozens of characters to customize and develop as you see fit, and this is one game that gives, and gives, and gives. I’m still playing it, almost a year later.

3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (iPad)

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my game of the year in 2012 — a superb modern update of a game I’ve been playing since 1994. Firaxis made Enemy Unknown even better when it released the Enemy Within expansion for consoles and PC in October, but it’s actually been the mobile release of the core game that’s kept me constantly coming back since it launched this summer. It’s never been better than it is on tablets, which is exactly why I bought an iPad Air this year instead of a PS4. Seriously. It’s that good. Also, don’t bother trying to catch me on the technicality that Enemy Unknown was originally released last year. My list!

2. SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt (3DS)

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What more can I say about Swedish indie developer Image & Form’s western-themed mining platformer? It came out of nowhere and took me completely by surprise. It blends elements of Super Metroid, Dig-Dug, and Minecraft into something completely new. I love, love, love this game (and in fact, I gave it a 9.5 in my IGN review.) It doesn’t get any fresher than this.

1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

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There’s so much to love about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I love how fluid it feels. I love the character designs based on concept art for the original Legend of Zelda. I love the Maiamai sidequest that hearkens back to Link’s Awakening’s hidden seashells, and the not-incredibly-difficult-but-still-awesome bosses, and the simple, challenging StreetPass battles that paid for several of Link’s most expensive tools. And I love the ending. But most of all, I love how Nintendo has cut out all the bloat that has been slowly taking over the Zelda series for the past 6 years and built a game that hearkens back to a time when developers trusted players to figure things out for themselves. A Link Between Worlds is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it’s my favorite game of 2013.

 

Guacamelee Review

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Immediately upon finishing Guacamelee, I turned my Vita off and packed it away with all the other game systems I rarely use. It wasn’t that I’d hated the game, or been embarrassed by how much time I’d wasted on it; in fact, I was ready to dive back in as soon as the credits stopped rolling! No, the truth of the matter is, I’d been so overwhelmingly impressed with the game – a game I knew next to nothing about only a few days before it launched – that I wasn’t sure my initial feelings would hold up once I sat down to write about it. So, for a week, I thought long and hard about the game, and tried to determine objectively whether it was really as good as it seemed.

More than a week later, I’m still thinking about Guacamelee. About its enigmatic opening moments. About Chivo, the sassy man-goat-wizard that threatened to go out with my mom every time I committed one of gaming’s oldest, most accepted sins (smashing stuff!). About the citizens of Pueblucho and Santa Luchita, who reminded me of my funny in-laws, and about the game’s rural guitar medleys and upbeat trumpet anthems that transformed into dusty funeral dirges whenever I swapped dimensions between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But mostly, I haven’t stopped thinking about the experience of playing Guacamelee, which is such a dead ringer for my all-time favorite game, Super Metroid, that I relished every single moment it allowed me to indulge what I’m now convinced is my most long-repressed fantasy: pursuing supernatural justice as an undead luchador. Thanks, DrinkBox!

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As I’ve mentioned at least a few times this week, I’m of the opinion that Super Metroid is the greatest game ever made. And that’s not because I’m a Nintendo fanboy, nor because I’m blind to the many advances in game design that have developed over the past two decades. No, what makes Super Metroid so great is that it was the first game to strike a perfect balance between prescribed narrative and open exploration. In doing so, it paved the way for three generations of games that gave players the tools to tell their own stories. Grand Theft Auto III, Skyrim, Minecraft – none of these would exist without Super Metroid. It was both the pinnacle of 2D game design, and the precursor to everything that has come since.

Guacamelee takes everything great about Super Metroid, updates it with current production values, then sucks out all of the dreadful pretention to Hollywood that has come to define modern game design. The result is a superb, open-ended adventure wrapped in a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek celebration of gaming for gaming’s sake. On the surface, this means the game is crammed with little references to developer DrinkBox Studios’ many influences – references like Metroid’s Chozo statues, and Zelda’s chickens, and Minecraft’s pickaxes. On a deeper level, DrinkBox isn’t afraid to poke fun at players and the games they grew up loving, because it’s a love the developer clearly shares. Yes, there’s a silly narrative about a guy with a mustache rescuing a princess from an evil so-and-so with nefarious plans for something or other, and a fun cast of supporting characters to propel it all forward, but the entirety of the game’s delightful presentation would amount to nothing if the underlying gameplay wasn’t up to snuff. Luckily, DrinkBox knows how to make a good game. And with Guacamelee, they’ve made not only the best game available for PS3 or Vita, but quite possibly the best game ever released on a PlayStation platform.

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As farmer-turned-luchador Juan Aguacate, players are dropped into a vast, interconnected set of forests, caverns, mountains, and ruined temples, free to wander in search of hidden power-ups and enemies to wallop with the game’s highly versatile combo system. As you tread new ground, the map automatically fills in to reflect the places you’ve been, while still-dark areas tease tantalizing secrets you’ve yet to uncover. Exploration is tied organically to the abilities you discover as you maneuver the game’s various environments; for instance, you won’t be able to break through red blocks until you’ve unlocked the Rooster Uppercut. Some abilities and upgrades can be purchased with coins earned by defeating the various undead pistoleros, giant skeletons, midget demons and flying chupacabras you’ll encounter on your travels, but many others are tied to specific story beats or side quests, meaning you’ll have to be fully engaged with the game’s narrative and quirky cast of characters if you want to unlock Juan’s full potential.

While it’s totally worth taking the time to see everything Guacamelee has to offer, some of Juan’s abilities are optional, and if you’re clever enough to figure out how to get by without them (and willing to ignore most of what gives the game its color), you can access parts of the map much earlier than the narrative dictates. This so-called “sequence-breaking,” where players exploit weaknesses in a game’s programming to bypass huge chunks of gameplay, is the foundation upon which the speedrunning subculture of gaming was born, and though games aren’t typically programmed with speedrunners in mind, many modern developers will deliberately leave such exploits in a game’s final code as a way to extend replay value. The presence of an online leaderboard that tracks completion time and item collection percentage is pretty strong evidence Guacamelee caters to speedrunners, but for those hardcore players who aren’t convinced, there’s also this:

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There’s so much more to say about this game, but I’ve carried on quite enough already. Maybe the game flew under your radar because of an exceptionally strong first quarter of releases for 2013; maybe you forgot about it with all the hubbub surrounding the PlayStation 4. And maybe, like me, you had no idea the game even existed until recently. None of that matters. If you love video games, you simply cannot ignore Guacamelee. It just might be the best game you’ll ever play.

A-Plus

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon Review

When the Gamecube launched in November 2001, it carried a heavy burden: being the first Nintendo console to debut without a new Mario game. Instead, it marked the beginning of what has become a long-standing tradition for the company: releasing new hardware and asking players to wait “just a little longer” for the software that would sell it. Where previous consoles came roaring onto the scene with three of the most enduring titles in Mario history, the GameCube would have to wait almost nine months for Super Mario Sunshine – an eternity in the life of a new console. That’s not to say Nintendo hadn’t prepared anything special for its entry into the sixth console generation; in fact, the company’s flagship GameCube title made the case for the system (and its funky new controller) just as well as Super Mario 64 had for the Nintendo 64 before it. And though it starred one of Nintendo’s most well-known characters, it was like no game the company had ever developed before.

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The game, of course, was Luigi’s Mansion, a send-up of Ghostbusters that had Luigi inheriting a spooky mansion, along with the thankless task of ridding it of a rather serious ghost problem. Though it was derided upon its initial release simply because it wasn’t Mario, Luigi’s Mansion has since become a sought-after title on the secondhand market, proving like so many under-appreciated games before it to endure long after the bleeting of the disappointed few has died down. Still, Nintendo’s announcement of a sequel at its E3 2011 press conference caught many off guard; after all, the premise of the original barely justified a single game, let alone two. Does a return trip to Luigi’s old haunting grounds prove to be worth the twelve year wait, or is the second son destined to live forever in the shadow of his brother’s success?

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon improves on the design of its predecessor in two important ways. First, by adding a variety of new locations for players to explore, the developers at Next Level Games have made a game that is significantly longer than the original, with an average playthrough taking between 12-15 hours. The game’s environmental artists clearly had a lot of fun letting Luigi out of the mansion: from a pair of haunted towers built around an enormous tree, to an abandoned mining facility hidden under a snow-logged chalet, there’s enough visual diversity on display to put even the biggest Nintendo games to shame.

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Of course, if all you were doing was moving from room to room, bustin’ ghosts with your shoulder-mounted vacuum, there wouldn’t be much point in extending the playtime, regardless of how nice it was to look at; as charming as the original game was, it grew repetitive rather quickly. To combat this problem, Dark Moon introduces a mission structure that gives players an opportunity to really dig in and explore each of its five environments, while retaining a sense of focus to drive them forward. The resulting game feels like a cross between a Sierra adventure game and a Saturday afternoon serial, with an assortment of deliberately crafted environmental puzzles and hunt-the-key quests punctuated by Buster Keaton-esque pratfalls as Luigi is constantly scared off his feet by the game’s hilarious cast of spiteful spooks. Yes, you’ll be doing a lot of the same thing from mission to mission – locating missing gears, burning down cobwebs, rescuing Toads – but the presentation is so charming that you can’t help but push forward just to see what abuses our meager hero will suffer next.

There’s plenty of reason to come back to Dark Moon once you’ve wrapped up the game’s approximately 25 story missions. A bevy of often maddeningly well-hidden collectibles – gold bricks, jewels, invisible Boos and other baubles – reward players with equipment upgrades, hidden time trials, and more, while a pair of 4-player variations on the core ghost-busting concept adds an element of competition to the package. It’s no Mario Kart, but the game’s multiplayer is a great way to spend a few minutes of downtime and can be played locally or online, with friends or globally. Also, it features pink Luigi, which is reason enough to give it a whirl.

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon isn’t without its shortcomings. The biggest of these is its occasionally clumsy control scheme, which has the aiming functions mapped to the X and B buttons. The original game stood as a proof of concept for the necessity of a second analog stick for navigating three-dimensional spaces, and while it stands to reason that Dark Moon would’ve inherited this functionality via the 3DS’s optional Circle Pad Pro accessory, support for the device wasn’t included in the final product. Additionally, the difficulty level of some of the late-game puzzles ramps up considerably over what is found in the majority of the game, which makes me wonder if Nintendo forgot that a large portion of its intended audience consists of small children who won’t always be able to ask for help.

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Over the past three decades, Nintendo has earned a loyal following by sticking to a single, constant design ethic – giving players a simple goal and asking only that they have fun accomplishing it. While Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon comes up short in a handful of areas, it is, by and large, another sterling example of what makes this company so essential to the gaming landscape. In an era where the vast majority of high profile games offer variations on the same theme, Nintendo quietly toils away at its own thing, reminding us that the simple joy of losing ourselves in a fantasy world is still just as relevant today as it has always been. Maybe you’ve outgrown your fear of the paranormal, but that doesn’t change the fact that bustin’ still feels so, so good.

A-Minus

 

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s review of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon was based on an eShop download provided to us by Nintendo.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate Review

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Rebooting a beloved franchise is always a tricky proposition. On the one hand, talented, perhaps underexposed developers get a rare opportunity to make their mark on a property that might have inspired them to get into the business to begin with; on the other, hell hath no fury like a fan base scorned. MercurySteam, whose latest title Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate launches this week for 3DS, is no stranger to alienating Castlevania fans, having kickstarted Konami’s current franchise reboot with 2010′s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a game that, for better or worse, was absolutely nothing like Castlevania and absolutely everything like God of War. Mirror of Fate attempts to bring back those fans by marrying Lords of Shadows‘ fast-paced combat and jaw-dropping visuals with a design that hews closer to what most people expect from a game bearing the Castlevania name, and the result is one of the best (and best looking) action games on the 3DS. But is it a Castlevania game? The answer to that question depends largely on you.

The story in Mirror of Fate isn’t incredibly complicated, but I won’t spoil it here; suffice to say, the Belmont clan has once again taken up the quest to rid the land of Dracula, and you’ll take control of multiple generations of Belmonts as they traverse the labyrinthine environments in and around the vampire’s castle, laying waste to countless undead hordes and ultimately coming face to face with the dark lord himself.

Structurally, the game draws inspiration from the ‘Metroidvania’ subset of titles (Symphony of the Night, Dawn of Sorrow, etc.), with an interconnected map system replete with areas that can only be reached with the right equipment, out-of-the-way secrets to uncover, and characters that level up via combat. In practice, though, it feels a lot closer to Metroid: Other M than Super Metroid, with essential upgrades – the various spells and weapons you’ll need to finish the game – doled out along a linear set of checkpoints. You’re still given ample opportunity to backtrack in search of health upgrades and the like, but none of these are absolutely necessary to see the game through to its conclusion.

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Still, it’s worth getting the most out of your time with the game, if only to see what MercurySteam’s artists have managed to coax out of Nintendo’s relatively underpowered hardware. Playable characters, monsters and larger bosses are all quite attractive, but the castle itself has been stunningly rendered, with crumbling battlements, decrepit tombs, cavernous theaters and abandoned merry-go-rounds all given an impressive sense of actuality by the 3DS’s unique display. And while you won’t technically be missing anything if you play in 2D, I can’t imagine wanting to. It’s really that good. Yes, there are isolated incidents where the system seems to buckle under the strain and the frame rate suffers a bit, but taken as a whole, there’s no better looking game on the 3DS.

This being a sequel to Lords of Shadow, character movement, combat and leveling have all been handled differently from what most fans are expecting; call me uncultured, but I actually prefer MercurySteam’s approach in most respects. With the d-pad reserved for equipment selection, movement is handled via the 3DS circle pad, which can be finicky during trickier platforming sections but works fine in most situations. The combat engine has been lifted wholesale from Lords of Shadow and can add a healthy dose of variety to battles that will otherwise feel repetitive (if you’ve fought one Posessed Armor, you’ve fought them all). The leveling system, which in previous entries was used for improving weapon proficiency, health, and the combat prowess of familiars, exists in Mirror of Fate solely for unlocking new combat abilities, which feels like a waste given that most enemies can be defeated with a generous application of the ‘button mash’ technique.

There’s a lot to love about Mirror of Fate, but it’s impossible to ignore the game’s greatest flaw:  it’s just too easy. The most beloved Castlevanias of generations past punctuated hours of freewheeling exploration with boss battles that would creep up when you least expected them and blindside you with their difficulty; you’d dread every step you took for fear that some cathedral-sized monstrosity was waiting just beyond the next room, ready to pummel you into submission and mockingly obliterate whatever progress you’d made since your last save. In Mirror of Fate, there’s no real consequence for dying, because the game auto-saves after every significant action you take – including multiple times during boss fights. Even the game’s unlockable Hardcore difficulty is a cakewalk, as the only change it introduces is an increase in damage sustained from enemy attacks (but not, conversely, a decrease in damage dealt to said enemies.) The game is dripping with atmosphere, aided by an orchestral score that can be both hauntingly subtle and overly oppressive, but all the tension it builds up dissipates immediately when you’re dropped right back into the tail end of a boss fight with a large portion of your health restored. I don’t usually root for the bad guy, but it seems a little unfair.

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So we come back to original question: does Mirror of Fate deserve to be called Castlevania? For you youngsters that fell in love with the series in 1997, maybe not. But for the rest of us old-timers – the ones who’ve watched the series grow and evolve over dozens upon dozens of successive releases – MercurySteam’s latest is a fitting tribute to the past, a testament to the franchise’s ability to thrive under disparate approaches to its core concept, and an excellent addition to the 3DS library. And if that’s not good enough for you, just remember: it could be far, far worse.

B

 

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s review of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate was based on a retail copy provided to us by the publisher shortly before the game’s release.

Gravity Rush Review

In the landscape of sandbox action games, it’s difficult to find anything that deviates from the sarcasm, juvenile sexuality, and fetishism of violence that Western developers are so preoccupied with these days. Enter Gravity Rush, SCE Japan Studio and Project Siren’s first foray into the open-world genre. The game has more in common with the films of Studio Ghibli than anything published by Rockstar, and is defined by an earnest empathy with the human condition that would make Miyazaki and Takahata proud. And, like the best Ghibli films, it’s simply a joy to experience.

Like Miyazaki’s seminal masterpiece, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Gravity Rush is built upon the melding of two core concepts that, at first, seem at odds with one another: the awkwardness of adolescence and the joys of responsibility. You control Kat, an amnesiac in an unfamiliar city, eager to find her place among a society that doesn’t seem to want her. Complicating the situation is a unique ability bestowed upon Kat by her feline friend, Dusty: she is capable of shifting the orientation of gravity at will. Gravity shifting allows Kat to walk up walls and along ceilings, glide effortlessly through bustling streets and plazas, and soar across the vast open spaces that define the skyline of Hekseville, Kat’s new city. Mastering these powers can be an awkward, ungainly, and downright embarrassing experience, and players discover early on that Kat doesn’t exist in a bubble: while she might just barely be coping with her abilities, the people around her are literally flung into turmoil every time she chases something shiny. It’s an obvious metaphor for puberty, and a welcome one, because it attempts to externalize something difficult and familiar that every single one of us has to go through.

The how and why of Kat’s abilities, and the awkwardness they bring to her life, are at the heart of Gravity Rush’s narrative, and as more of the city opens up, players will learn to control Kat’s powers and harness them for the good of those around her. The citizens of Hekseville, once suspicious of Kat and her strange abilities, will learn not only to accept her, but to welcome her presence in their lives. As more and more Heksevillians begin to rely on Kat, her responsibilities grow exponentially – after initially being tasked to rescue a stranded child and stop a notorious bandit, she eventually finds herself charged with the defense of Hekseville from an out-of-control military-industrial complex and the monsters it unleashes.

The beauty of this progression is that Kat’s responsibilities never outpace her personal development. As the story progresses, you will realize you’re no longer wrestling with Kat’s abilities or initially awkward controls – that everything you’re doing just feels right. It won’t be an “aha!” moment, but rather something that grows naturally from your time spent playing the game. It’s the kind of discovery that personifies the emotional connection between player and play that is so wholly unique to this medium: as Kat becomes more confident in herself and her place in the city, so will players become more comfortable with their own relationship with her.

Beyond Kat’s journey of self-discovery, there’s plenty of game here to keep players busy. The story missions will take around 10 hours to complete, but a series of challenges (races designed to help players master the game’s controls), hidden subplots and rare enemies to discover, and tens of thousands of gems to collect and abilities to unlock and level up should stretch the experience out to around 15 hours. A handful of DLC packs, bringing with them new costumes, challenges, and story missions, are scheduled for release throughout the first half of the summer, so players should have plenty of excuses to return to the game once they’ve finished the main campaign.

Gravity Rush is a defining moment for Japanese game development – proof that there are still fresh ideas coming from Eastern developers. It’s a decidedly unique take on the sandbox game, and a breath of fresh air in an industry that seems hell-bent on drowning in its own gore. If you own a PS Vita, you simply must play this game.

A

 

E3 2012: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate Hands-on!

You know, maybe it’s time to let Metroid: Dread go. There’ve been so many great open-ended platformers not starring Samus Aran released over the past half-decade that each new release makes it more and more difficult to justify lugging that torch around. Based on my time with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate at this year’s E3, Spanish developer MercurySteam is set to provide yet another reason to put Dread to bed…assuming it addresses a few glaring issues before the game ships this fall.

Unlike the first Lords of Shadow, which went all 3D action-adventurey, the 3DS game falls firmly into the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp of 2D Castlevania goodness. But don’t expect sprites: Mirror of Fate is actually running on a modified version of the original Lords of Shadow engine, enhanced by a sterescopic parallax scrolling effect that renders moonlit castle grounds and rotting dungeons with an appropriate amount of moodiness and mystery. In addition to porting LoS’s striking visuals to the smaller system, MercurySteam has also adapted the previous game’s God of War-like combat to Mirror’s 2D plane, but the results aren’t quite as impressive: attacking feels floaty and imprecise, like a smartphone game being controlled with real buttons. It works well enough for larger targets – an in-air dodge mechanic makes the demo’s two bosses particularly easy to deal with – but encounters with typical enemies (i.e. the omnipresent skeletons and bats) never quite engage like they do in more recent portable entries in the series.

Compared to more recent releases like Shadow Complex, Monster Tale, or Aliens: Infestation, which feel like natural extensions of the games that inspired them, Mirror of Fate can seem awfully clunky, and slow. Luckily, the open-ended exploration that is a staple of the series is as rewarding as ever, though it’s impossible to tell at this point whether progress is tied organically to your character’s accrued abilities, or whether it’s all switches and multicolored keys. In the demo, players guide protagonist Trevor Belmont through the dilapidated ruins of Dracula’s castle, ostensibly on a quest to enact vengeance upon his mother’s murderer, and most of the backtracking required to reach the final section revolves around flipping switches or crossing arbitrary checkpoints to unlock previously unreachable areas. It all seems a bit rudimentary compared to other recent series entries, but then again, it is just a demo.

It’s worth noting that Mirror of Fate is actually Metroidvania in denial! But I’m okay with that. I fully expect once MercurySteam gets over its odd aversion to silly labels, we’ll be looking at another awesome addition to the 3DS’s library.

Batman: Arkham City – Harley Quinn’s Revenge DLC Review

Last year’s Batman: Arkham City was a nearly perfect game, with an engrossing central plot that was a natural extension of its predecessor, an open world and more refined core mechanics with which to explore it, and so many secrets, gadgets, super friends, and bat-villains than it’s a wonder Rocksteady pulled off such a cohesive adventure.  For many, the biggest problem with the game was that, even though you could continue to explore the city after you finished the main story and copious side quests, there wasn’t really all that much to do.

SPOILER ALERT: Skip the following paragraph if you haven’t finished Batman: Arkham City!

Harley Quinn’s Revenge seeks to remedy that issue by adding a new story to the Arkham City mythos, and in that regard, it’s successful. Joker’s dead, and Batman’s not the only one grieving: Harley is dressed in mourning and wants the world to feel her pain. When Batman disappears shortly after entering Arkham City’s Steel Mill to foil Harley’s latest plot, it’s up to Robin to connect the dots and answer Gotham’s most urgent question: whatever happened to the Caped Crusader?

The answer isn’t really all that complicated, and highlights the biggest issue with Harley Quinn’s Revenge: there’s really nothing being done here that Arkham City didn’t already do (and do better.) Without the freedom to explore the city and only two or three specific uses for Robin’s unique gadgets, this content might as well have been included in the previously released Robin Bundle Pack.  And sure, it’s great to take control of Robin in story-based mode, but honestly: at 90 minutes, only a handful of tiny rooms to explore, and a story that fails to say anything about the Batman universe, there’s nothing here to justify the cost of admission.

If you’re strapped for a reason to return to the dark delights of Batman: Arkham City, Harley Quinn’s Revenge is probably the best reason you’re going to get; but if you’re looking for character development, unique mysteries to solve, or new ways to interact with the city, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.

C

E3 is Tomorrow? Guess I Better Post Something!

You’d think with my push to get Invisible Gamer up, running, and full of great content just before E3, I’d have posted something by now about the year’s biggest gaming event. So what gives? Did I forget? Do I just not care? Or do I have something so mind-blowingly awesome planned for Invisible Gamer at E3 that I just couldn’t bear to spoil the surprise?

Nah, it’s nothing like that. I’ve just been so focused on finishing Mass Effect 3 before I surround myself with tens of thousands of people who’ve already finished the game that I haven’t had time to commit anything to record about the biggest week in gaming news. I’ve got a ton of other content to create this week, including a Resistance: Burning Skies review that I will probably write on the flight to L.A. and edit in the back of whatever rip-off taxi cab picks me up from LAX (have I mentioned before that I hate L.A. and its crooked-ass taxi drivers? I do.)

So now that I’ve successfully wrapped up one of gaming’s great modern achievements, here’s what I’m most looking forward to seeing at E3:

 

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Mmm…..Geoscape.

The 1990s were a zeitgeist of popular opinion, superstition, and an all-out media assault on the topic of extra terrestrials, and I can’t even begin to tell you about all the memories I have of a certain boy I knew who was certain he’d have to rescue all his loved ones from alien abduction, or die trying (yeah, I was a pretty serious kid.) But while ID4, Heaven’s Gate, and even The X-Files have all dropped out of the collective consciousness of a generation that was raised on the idea that “we are not alone,” there’s one relic of that silliness that I still revisit regularly: the peerless turn-based strategy game, X-Com: UFO Defense. There was nothing before and there’s been nothing since that has so thoroughly and engrossingly captured the concept of alien invasion, and this year’s surprise reveal that Firaxis was working on a modern remake of the game was almost enough to wash away the memory of 2K Marin’s soulless cash-grab of an XCOM FPS. Am I confident Firaxis will deliver? Absolutely. But ff they don’t? Oh, well. MicroProse’s original title is still one of the greatest games ever made, and you can be damned sure I’ll continue playing it until I’m old and gray and the little men with the big eyes have come for me at last.

Ni no Kuni

Oh. Mah. God.

Level-5 committed one of the biggest travesties of the year when it declared there were “too many hurdles” stopping them from releasing an English translation of Ni no Kuni: Shikoku no Madoushi for the Nintendo DS. Seriously: a Dragon Quest style RPG, set in a world designed and populated by those wizards of hand-drawn animation at Studio Ghibli, and a Joe Hisaishi soundtrack? Who wouldn’t want to play that? YEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGH!

Okay…I’m fine….it’s okay….no. Really. I’m good.

As long as the PS3 version of the game is anywhere near as good as the portable game I played last year, I’m willing to forgive Level-5 for their egregious error in judgment. The beauty of the original title was somewhat lost in the translation to the DS’s low resolution screens and super-compressed FMVs, so the PlayStation 3 is actually a much better fit for the game, but damn, what I wouldn’t give to be able to take this one on the go. (Level-5, if you’re reading: PS Vita.)

Another Team Ninja-style Metroid Adventure

Samus in HD? Yes, please!

Screw popular opinion: Metroid: Other M was a fine return to form for one of the most riveting franchises in gaming history (aside from Samus’s deadpan monologuing and ridiculous justification for not activating her weapon and armor upgrades: “not till daddy Malkovich says it’s okay!”) There’s been some buzz that Retro is working on something Metroid-related for the Wii U’s re-reveal at E3 2012, and though it’s almost certainly going to be a first-person continuation of the Prime series, I’m actually hoping Nintendo’s most talented second-party will get to stretch it legs a little big and take us out of Samus’s HUD. Retro’s already proven it’s capable of delivering a classic-style experience befitting of its name, but with it being in Nintendo’s best interests to deliver a unique FPS for the Wii U, it’s not likely we’ll see anything like Other M again…at least not on a home console. But wait, stop the presses: what if we got a double-dose of Metroid like 2002′s one-two punch of Prime and Fusion – an FPS for the Wii U and a 2D platformer for the 3DS? Don’t think too hard, Nintendo: just make it happen. Can anyone say “Dread”?

BioShock Vita

Oh Ken, you loveable, awkward bastard. Put that thing back in your pocket until you learn how to use it!

Resistance: Burning Skies is not anywhere near as bad as you might have read, but whenever I play it, I cant’ help but think back on Sony’s E3 2011 press conference, where Irrational Games’ Ken Levine trotted the Vita out of his back pocket and teased that it would be home to a pet project set in the BioShock universe. Come on, Ken. Don’t do that to us again this year. We get ulcers. The Vita may be home to some unique tech, but let’s not kid ourselves: all we really want is a pocket-friendly BioShock FPS. If this shows up at Sony’s E3 2012 conference, even in video form, we’ll all sleep better knowing Papa Levine has our best interests at heart.

Mother 3 on 3DS Virtual Console

Sad face.

A guy can dream, can’t he? Listen: I am the absolute last person who will tell you to buy a flash card, but as long as Nintendo keeps the best JRPG I’ve ever played out of the hands of western audiences, it’s in your best interests to grab the fan translation, stick it on an EZ-Flash IV, fire up your Gameboy hardware of choice, and find out what you’ve been missing out on all these years. Operation Rainfall set a great precedent for convincing Nintendo that there’s a Western audience for JRPGs…maybe it’s about time they focus their efforts on hardware that isn’t going to be dead in less than a year. Mother 3 on 3DS Virtual Console is, hands down, my most anticipated title of E3 2012. It’s just a shame it’ll never happen.

And with that…I’m packed and heading to L.A. in a few hours. See you at the show!

Vita in Need of some TLC? Time to Dust off the Classics!

If you’ve been impatiently counting down the days to E3, hoping beyond hope that Sony has some amazing Vita-related tricks to pull out of its magic hat, you’re not alone: aside from a handful of exciting, upcoming titles, there just aren’t very many reasons to justify owning a Vita at this point. But if you’ve already made the investment and you’re willing to look backward toward the sizable PSP catalog available on the PSN, I guarantee you’ll find at least a few titles that are worth your time.

Over the next few days, we’ll be highlighting some of the greatest Vita-compatible PSP titles you might have overlooked in your quest to fill up that overpriced memory card – starting with these time-tested, gamer-approved classics:

Metal Slug Anthology

For my money, Metal Slug Anthology is one of the best reasons to own a Vita or PSP. With seven amazing Contra-style run’n’gun games, each representing the absolute pinnacle of pixel artistry, over-the-top animation, and arcade-perfect sound and music, you’ll have plenty to do while you wait for the next great Vita title. The menu system’s a little wonky, but the emulation is spot on. The only thing missing here is the $600 price tag that came with the original NEO GEO home console – at just $19.99, this is, hands down, the best value on the entire PSN and a must-buy for shooter fans. And hey, if you want to test the waters before committing to the whole collection, you can get the first two games in the series for $7 each – either way, you won’t regret your purchase.

 

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

No, you still can’t play PS1 Classics on the Vita, but did you know you actually can play Symphony of the Night on your Vita? No? Luckily for you, we did! For $14.99, Dracula X Chronicles includes both polygonal and sprite-based versions of the respectable Rondo of Blood…but more importantly, it includes Symphony of the Night as an unlockable bonus! The version included isn’t entirely faithful to the 1997 PlayStation release, featuring some re-dubbed voice work and a few other minor changes, but for the most part, this is the same great game it’s always been (and yes, the music you know and love is fully intact.) Of course, you can’t play it on your TV like you can the PS1 Classic version, but if you’re achin’ for some stakin’, Alucard and pop are ready for you today.

 

Power Stone Collection

Do you remember the days when Sega made its own hardware, Sonic hawked nasty chili-dog loogies in Mario’s general direction, and Resident Evil’s Steve Burnside looked a little more like Leo DiCaprio? Yeah. We miss the Dreamcast too. Right up at the top of the Dreamcast’s unforgettable library were Capcom’s Power Stone titles: frenzied, four-player brawlers that, for Sega fans, defined local multiplayer in the late 1990s in much the same way as Goldeneye and Super Smash Bros did for Nintendo fans. For the low, low price of $9.99, both Power Stone and Power Stone 2 can be had in a single download, but keep one thing in mind: the chances of you getting four Vita-toting friends together to talk smack and smash chips in your hair like the old days are slim-to-none. Still, this is as good a way as any to pour one out for our dearly departed Dreamcast, who kept thinking long after Sega took it off life support.

Worms: Battle Islands

If you want an epic, wizards and warriors themed strategy adventure to play on your Vita, you’ll have no shortage of options thanks to PSP offerings from Square Enix, Level-5, NIS, and others. But if you’re looking for something a little more pick up-and-play, you can’t go wrong with the latest release in Team17′s classic Worms series. Crisp, cartoony graphics, endearing accents and the goofiest weapons you’ll ever find in a video game make this a can’t miss experience. Like Power Stone, Worms is a game best played with friends, but the single player is good fun, too, granted you can put up with AI that only operates in one of two extremes: rock-dumb or razor-sharp. Unfortunately, at $24.99, this is also one of the most expensive PSP games on the PSN…but if money isn’t an issue for you, I say, squirm on in!

And with that horrible pun officially out there for the world to see…stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment, where we’ll recommend some of the best console-style PSP games you can play on your Vita…and discuss how some of these great franchises might fare on Sony’s latest and greatest handheld.