Afterthoughts: Radiant Historia

Radiant Historia is a wonder. It’s like and unlike every JRPG from the SNES/PS1 eras, and just when you think the story and gameplay are growing trite, the game’s dual-universe concept takes over. That’s the only way to describe it: taking over. The game erupts once you realize how you can jump between standard and alternate history, pushing through the main story and chasing sidequests. Whereas this may have been a so-so RPG with a fresh battle system, Radiant Historia will go down as memorable in my mind for the dual-history concept and all the engrossment that arises from it.

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Time forks right from the start, but the split history concept really takes off at about the midway point of game.

When I said RH was familiar, I meant it. From a story standpoint, it’s like every other RPG from the 90s: War, magic, good kings, evil queens, world domination, romantic tension that goes nowhere… you’ve been here before. But where you likely haven’t been is jumping between one version of time and another. Friends in Standard history may not even cross your path in Alternate History; powerful enemies in one timeline may be lackeys in the other; and saving an ally’s life may depend on going back in time or learning a technique in another timeline. It’s both fun and thought-provoking, and there’s also a little philosophical meat to it in terms of fatalism.

If all the time-jumping complicated, it shouldn’t. RH makes temporal travel smooth by giving you a map with two dotted lines for Standard and Alternate history. Click any blue point–past or present–and you’re there. Then you can tweak history, save lives, foil plots, and reclaim lost items. It’s engrossing. It’s compelling. It’s simple. Most of all, it’s what distinguishes RH as one of the better handheld RPGs out there.

The odd thing about Radiant Historia is that even though it immediately introduces the two alternate timelines in the game’s opening scene, the concept doesn’t exactly take off until about 15 hours in. It’s kind of like the Wedding of Cana–you know, the Bible story where the reception runs out of cheap wine, then Jesus miraculously provides an abundance of better booze. With Radiant Historia, just when I thought I’d had my fill, the second half of the game went down like a cold slurp of rejuvenation.

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You start fighting Thaumachines near the end of the game. The trick to beating them? Plant an electric mine and knock the metal titan into it.

Along with the story and quests, the battle system also jacks up the intensity around the midway point of the game. As I discussed in my First Impressions post, RH’s battle system challenges players to knock enemies around a 3-by-3 grid, setting up two-birds-with-one-stone style attacks. In the forty hours I spent with RH, the battle system never went stale, although it was too easy for the longest time. A welcome jump in difficulty comes around the midway point, with tougher baddies and a couple new wrinkles, like shields and power strips. Much as I loved the battle system for it’s freshness, I’d have loved to see it evolve more over the course of the game.

I’m not sure if I’ll have time to write a review of Radiant Historia, so this might be the closest thing to it. If you want a score, how’s 8/10 sound? Great game, brilliant concept… I just would’ve liked to see a more comprehensive battle system and a deeper supporting cast. Other than those gripes, it’s mostly praise for the ages. Both of them.

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Mass Effect (PS3) Review: 6/10

This weekend I managed to distill all my mixed, twisted feelings on the original Mass Effect into one neat summation. If you’re not into lengthy reading, my closing thoughts on Mass Effect are below. Click Here to go to GameFAQs for the full-length review.

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As conflicted as I’ve felt about a game in ages.

Mass Effect is not a landmark game. Not in the history of gaming, nor in recent memory. While the writers have cooked up a compelling universe and a worthy storyline, the game as a whole is sloppy, uneven, and ultimately average. While I wouldn’t characterize it as a trainwreck, I can’t recommend it as anything more than a decent game set in a unique and enthralling sci-fi world. The watered-down combat, trippy frame rate, underdeveloped characters, and dreadful sidequests all hold this one back. If you must play the entire trilogy, then give Mass Effect a go; otherwise, skip straight to its sequels.

+ Intriguing storyline
+ Brilliantly designed sci-fi universe with alien races, political systems, etc.
+ Dialogue system that enables freedom to construct your own story
+ Solid voice acting

– Rickety frame rate
– Watered-down combat
– Shaky ally A.I.
– Supporting cast members have muddled identities
– Uninspiring side missions

Afterthoughts: Mass Effect

You familiar with the concept of a “bad good game”? It’s a great game that gets paved with its own shortcomings to the point that it plays like an early N64 game that wasn’t ready for a 3D engine. But it’s still good. Really. Mass Effect was a blast. Even with a laundry list of technical flaws holding it back.

***SPOILER WARNING***

Every major positive about Mass Effect has a drawback of some sort:

1) The slick supporting characters don’t get enough development; nor do they make good teammates in battle. If Wrex gets the the way of my ammo stream one more time, I swear…

2) The vast, believable universe only offers a handful of major locations and a bunch of dull side planets. And no matter where you go, you’ll encounter framerate issues that could trigger the Richter Scale.

3) Saren proves to be a solid villain with compelling motivations. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of him, and up until the end he appears to be power-hungry and one-dimensional.

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Though ultimately a puppet, Saren had compelling motivations for siding with the Reapers.

4) The Mako keeps gameplay fresh but handles like a speedboat through syrup. Worse yet, the terrain you drive over couldn’t be less exciting if it were mono-colored dirt. Oh, wait, it is.

5) The epic storyline is shorter than you’d expect (15-25 hours, depending on how much you love sidequests), and yet the plethora of dialogue options make it feel drawn out at times.

I could let this list tumble a little further, but I’m not here to bash. Instead, I’m left pondering how compromised Mass Effect 1 is. When everything good has some bad to it, you can’t label something a masterpiece. You just can’t. Unfortunately, fans of the Mass Effect series had me believing the games oozed greatness at every pore. At the very least, Mass Effect 1 has it’s fair share of clogs.

Take the combat, for instance. It’s simple enough: four weapon types, three party members, and cover-based shooting. Throw in an array of special techniques, ally commands, and weapon upgrades to keep it interesting. Sounds great in theory, right? But the execution is lacking. ME1 doesn’t reward you for headshots, nor does it challenge you to conserve ammo (Weapon “overheating” penalties don’t scare me, sorry.). Since enemies have no weakpoints and ammo is infinite as air, there’s little need for strategy. You can plow through the game by just abusing the assault rifle the entire time. And while the shotgun and sniper rifle come in handy, the pistol is utterly useless. Why even have a precision weapon like a pistol if you’re not rewarding headshots?

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Garrus, Ashley, and Wrex deserved more screen time and competent battle A.I.

Things are getting too negative–how about some love? The creativity and writing that went into the game dazzle me. The Mass Effect universe feel entirely real with its various races, ethnic backgrounds, customs, political systems, speech patterns, and character motivations. The world’s verisimilitude makes for some powerful scenes, particularly a late-game one involving Wrex, when he and Shepard ultimately determine the future of the Krogan race. Moments like those complement the storyline’s flexibilty and take the drama to a level that most videogame storylines can’t come close to matching. I got chills when I had to consider eliminating the buggy Rachni race; annoying as they are, would they really be better off extinct? And choosing between saving Kaiden and Ashley during the nuke mission was tough.

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What could be more fun than driving a Mako? Walking.

That being said, it’s a damn shame Mass Effect 1’s physical universe feels so thin and repetitive, not to mention disjointed. Once you take the helm of the Normandy, you can travel to various solar systems and planets, which sounds bangin’ until you realize you can only land on one planet per solar system. And while that’s a letdown, your spirit doesn’t truly crash until you realize that the optional planets are all barren playgrounds for your Mako to roam over. And when you do find a military station or outpost, chances are it has the exact same level design as an outpost on another optional planet. At one stage of my playthrough, I literally did the same sidequest twice in a row from a gameplay standpoint: enter at the right bottom corner of floor one, shoot everything that moves, take the stairs at the left wall, press X at the end of the lone second-floor room. Don’t forget to yawn.

Reviewing (and scoring) Mass Effect will be tough. On one hand you have a stellar plot, world, and cast in terms of writing; on the other you have watered-down shooting, bouncy-ball framerate, dull Mako parts, and a handful of missed opportunities. Don’t get me wrong: the good outweigh the bad. I’m just praying that Mass Effect 2 addresses the original’s issues.

Tomb Raider (PS3) Review: 9/10

Last week I raved about Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot and promised a full-length review. Here it is, hot off the word processor. Give it a look if you want an in-depth, spoiler-free outlook on a game that I feel is exhilarating from the moment you press start.

Also note that Tomb Raider is going for cheap on Amazon these days. If $22 is too steep for you, keep TR in mind around Black Friday.

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Want two big reasons to play Tomb Raider? Yeah? You’re into that? Try combat and atmosphere.

According to this old IGN article, most gamers are too lazy to read any part of a review other than the intro and conclusion paragraphs (if even that much). Just in case my readership consists of a mass of loafing sloths, I’m pasting the conclusion below. Enjoy it, you lazy bastards.

To recap, Tomb Raider is a stellar entry into what will likely become a trilogy or sub-series. Crystal Dynamics drank liberally from Uncharted’s fountain while developing the core gameplay, and the distinctive TR nuances of stealth and exploration keep this game from feeling hackish—it is by no means “Uncharted with a chick.” Despite the weak and forgettable supporting cast, the story proves intriguing thanks to Lara’s character development and the mystery swirling around the island of Yamatai. I can’t speak as someone who has played prior entries in the Tomb Raider franchise, but as a gamer who enjoys slash-paced action and exploration, I would highly recommend TR13 based on its riveting single-player campaign. If online multiplayer is vital to you, dock a point off my review score, as you won’t find a buzzing community or brilliant level design here. But as far as the single-player experience goes, it’s a twenty-hour journey that keeps firing away with brutal action, inviting environments, and puzzles of the climbing and thinking varieties.

+ Excellent combat system, climbing segments, tomb puzzles
+ Supernatural world with great sense of place and history
+ Lara’s character development
+ Stunning, detailed character models and environments
+ Numerous collectibles, weapon upgrades, skills

– Supporting cast doesn’t get enough screen time to make a dramatic impact
– Glitchy moments with enemy battle dialogue
– Passable online multiplayer

Afterthoughts: Tomb Raider

When Square Enix released Tomb Raider earlier this year, I was too far buried beneath my own backlog to drop $60 on it. I stocked up on games during Black Friday and the holidays, so I figured I’d wait. From a financial standpoint, I’m glad I did (I scored it from Best Buy for $20 a couple weeks ago), but the gamer in me wishes I’d played it the day it came out.

The Tomb Raider 2013 reboot is a fantastic new addition to the Uncharted family, and I mean no disrespect to TR13 when I say that. It just plays like Uncharted–hardly a bad thing. I wouldn’t call TR13 an Uncharted-ripoff; rather, TR13 is to Uncharted what Banjo-Kazooie is to Super Mario 64. Just as Banjo-Kazooie incorporated SM64’s controls and gameplay into a more exploration-based world, Tomb Raider does the same. It still has the fast-paced, story-driven adventure that you’ll find in the Uncharted trilogy, but with more treasure-hunting and environmental puzzle-solving. TR13 also adds some new weapons and techniques that make gunplay, stealth segments, and climbing feel fresh.

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Lara, I swear, I like you for your gameplay…

I’m drafting up a review for GameFAQs.com that should be up within the week. I’ll link to it once it’s posted. For no extra charge, I’m posting the draft’s intro below. Seriously, it’s on me–I expect nothing in return. Just enjoy the intro and the charitable mood I’m in…

Let’s get one thing out of the way: It’s impossible for me to discuss the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot (TR13) without comparing it to Uncharted. TR13 offers plenty of guns, treasure collecting, climbing, and other Uncharted staples. But that’s not a bad thing–we clear? Great. Now that that’s out of the way I’ll say that up until E3 2012 the Tomb Raider franchise never interested me. While the early games in the franchise received favorable reviews and sparked the PS1’s game library, I never bothered to play them. Lara’s character design had a lot to do with it—I figured if the games were good, they wouldn’t have to star a floozy with two Ion Cannons tucked under her tanktop. On top of that, a couple of my buddies admitted the gameplay wasn’t as hot as the chick on the box. So I took a pass. But as for the 2013 reboot? Glad I didn’t. It turns out TR13 is phenomenal from a gameplay standpoint—every bit as gritty and sexy as the cover girl this time around.