Dumbass Design: Okami’s Mini-Games

Greg wrote several days ago about Okami’s irritating gibberish, which nearly drove him insane. I’m happy to inform Greg that his misery is over. I didn’t finish Okami. One of its mini-games finished me.

None of Okami’s mini-games are particularly fun, from digging through a maze to head-butting a mole until he gives you a teacup. But the mini-game that finally prompted me to pull the plug was fishing.

First of all, it’s goddamn fishing. If I wanted to catch virtual fish, I would’ve bought Reel Fishing.

Second, the fishing mini-game gives the player only the vaguest illusion of control. The player controls a fisherman as a fish swims from one side of the screen to the other. Pull the left analog stick in the opposite direction that the fish is swimming–but not too hard, lest you tire out the fisherman.

Whenever the game decides that you’ve been at it long enough, the fish leaps from the water. This could take 30 seconds or five minutes; it’s impossible to gauge your progress. The player then kills the leaping fish by slashing it using the paintbrush feature.

If you don’t react quickly enough when the fish leaps, or if you slash the fish in a manner the game deems unacceptable, it’s back to pulling on the left analog stick for another few minutes, until the fish feels like jumping again.

I wish I could just skip the fishing bit, but I can’t. In order to progress in the game at the point where I am, I have to catch this fish, even though the significance of one fish in an epic struggle between good and evil seems marginal, at best. And devoting even ten more minutes of my life to this stupid mini-game is too much.

So there’s your lesson for today, future game designers. A player more than halfway through a game will still abandon the game before its conclusion, if sufficiently annoyed.

It’s a shame, really. I was having a lot of fun feeding the bunnies.

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Review: Shadow of the Colossus

(Note: This review originally appeared at Game-Vixen.com in 2006.)

One game loomed over the 2006 Game Developers Choice Awards, and it wasn’t one of the previous year’s commercial behemoths, God of War or Resident Evil 4. Shadow of the Colossus won not only Game of the Year, but also Best Visual Arts, Best Character Design, and Best Game Design. While it may not have sold as many copies as a couple of the other PS2 hits of last year, Shadow of the Colossus was simply too good to be ignored by the industry.

Story and Gameplay
You play as a young man named Wander (who had the misfortune of being named ‘Wanda’ in early stages of the game’s conversion from the Japanese version). Wander rides his horse to a forbidden temple and asks the spirits there to revive the body of a dead girl. When the spirits warn him that there’s a price, Wander says he’ll pay, no matter what.

Wander’s mission is to destroy 16 colossi that inhabit the forbidden lands. Apart from his faithful horse, Agro, Wander is completely alone during his travels. The sense of isolation is exaggerated by the openness of the lands. Most of the terrain is flat, occasionally punctuated by steep mountains. You can see forever, and there is nobody else around. It’s as beautiful as it is eerie.

There is no buildup to the clashes with the colossi, no practice enemies along the way. The game is, essentially, 16 boss fights. In between battles, the only things for Wander to attack with his sword and arrows are lizards and fruit, which increase the player’s stats when eaten.

Just about every colossus is, well, colossal. Seeing one is like looking up at a skyscraper from the sidewalk; it looks like it goes on forever, and you want to keep staring just so your eyes can make sense of it. Except if you stare too long in Shadow of the Colossus, the skyscraper might step on you.

Each colossus is impressive, and each is unique. They all look different, and many are loosely based on animals or human forms. Some lumber across the land, as you might expect, but others swim, burrow, or fly. Wander’s attack strategy changes depending on the way a colossus moves and what kind of environment it inhabits.

Once Wander finds a colossus, his sword reflects a beam of light toward the weak spots on the creature. Wander then must jump on the colossus, climb to the right areas, and stab away. Half of the challenge is simply hanging onto the giant beasts, who, like many of us, react poorly to being stabbed. The other half is figuring out how to get on the colossus in the first place. Wander may have to climb to higher ground to jump on, he may have to goad the colossus into approaching him, or he may have to trick the colossus into a vulnerable position.

During each battle, you may die or fall to the ground a few times, but even your missteps aren’t too frustrating. Each time you fail, you’ll usually have gotten a little closer to achieving your goal. The game quietly rewards you by making you a bit better (and making you feel a little smarter) as you progress. Only the last colossus has some arbitrarily punitive aspects that will drive you nuts, but I guess that’s to be expected. After that battle, you’ll feel you’ve earned your victory.

One of the best things that Shadow of the Colossus has going for it is the pace at which the game can be completed. Most of the colossi can be defeated in about 45 minutes (including travel time). Some take less, and a couple might take an hour or two. The battles are long enough to satisfy, but short enough that you always think you’ve got time for one more fight before shutting off your PS2 and catching some sleep.

On the first playthrough, the game can be won in 10-15 hours. While that might sound short, the game feels just about the right length–just like a good 90-minute movie would rarely be made better by adding an extra hour.

But if you want more gameplay, replay value is high. After winning the game, you can fight the giants in any order you wish. The colossi are still fun and challenging the second time around, and winning unlocks a hard mode and a time trial mode, in which you race the clock to fell each beast. Because each battle is a fully encapsulated experience, Shadow of the Colossus is a perfect game to pick up every now and then, even if you only want to play for an hour or so.

Graphics
Among the game’s many high points are its polished graphics. Details are fine enough that we can see individual hairs on a colossus blowing in the wind, and the colossi’s movements are so graceful that, while clinging to one of the creatures, you feel as if you yourself are moving.

The world, while finite, is gigantic, and the long range views of terrain are spectacular. The game’s designers left enough open space for players to appreciate the rolling hills, jagged cliffs, and ocean views, without distracting you with a million tiny rocks and shrubs. There are no loading screens to endure, and this seamless transition from location to location helps maintain the illusion of being inside the world.

Sound
Part of what makes the game so lonely is a very careful use of sound. Except for the clacking of Agro’s hooves on the ground, everything is quiet as you ride around the world. Music is reserved for battles and story sequences. It’s worth the wait, because the music is lush and gorgeous. In case you can’t find it locally, the game’s soundtrack, Roar of the Earth, is available on eBay.

Voice acting is also minimal, and what few words are spoken are in a fictional language. Most of the story is at the beginning and end of the game, forming a framework for the battles in between.

Conclusions
Shadow of the Colossus is worth all of the hype. It’s beautiful, fun, and totally accessible. Because the bulk of the story is saved for the end of the game, it’s easy to defeat one monster and call it a day without losing track of the narrative. It’s a game that works in extended chunks of time, or in the same period it takes to watch a TV show.

Review: Dirge of Cerberus

(Note: This review originally appeared at Game-Vixen.com in 2006.)

The audience for a video game sequel is often limited to people who played the original game. But, by deviating from its predecessor’s standard Role Playing Game format, Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus could have an even more limited audience. It might be the first shooter game for RPGers.

For the follow up to the original PlayStation game, FFVII, and the recently released feature-length film, Advent Children, Square Enix opted to continue the story of Cloud and his buddies in a third-person shooter format. But this time, Cloud took a backseat to everyone’s favorite undead sharpshooter, Vincent Valentine, an optional character in the original game.

A year after the gang dispatched the last batch of Shin-Ra baddies in Advent Children, another group of materia-made mutants threatens to destroy the planet. Vincent is deemed the most well-equipped guy for the job, especially considering his background as a member of Shin-Ra’s hired guns, the Turks.

Story and Gameplay:
The game’s tutorial is set decades in the past, and players learn the controls as a young, still-animate Vincent undertaking his Turk training. It took just over half an hour to master the camera controls and become familiar with Vincent’s melee attacks and three primary weapons: handgun, machine gun, and rifle. There’s also training for sit-down turret guns, which show up throughout the game for use in optional missions.

After the tutorial, gameplay occurs in the present, with the occasional flashback cutscene. The game is broken into small stages, most consisting of one primary objective, several optional missions, and a boss battle.

The boss battles are exciting, but most of the action leading up to each of them is a series of close-quarters fights, which rely heavily on handgun and melee attacks. Except for the big fights, there’s not a whole lot of strategy that goes into completing a stage. Just run around, dodging and shooting enemies, praying you have enough bullets. Only a few battles require different tactics, like using magic attacks or a sniper scope.

Vincent does have some really cool, acrobatic attacks, during which he leaps hundreds of feet, fires rocket launchers, and navigates the skies on a hoverboard. Unfortunately, these moves are shown only in cutscenes and pre-rendered movie segments. When the player is controlling Vincent, he’s usually stuck on the ground and has trouble leaping over barrels. He can save the world, but he’d never beat Donkey Kong.

Still, what the gameplay lacks in variation and spectacle, it makes up by being fun and forgiving. For shooting game newbies like me, there’s an auto-targeting option for Vincent’s guns. You won’t always lock on the exact enemy you want, but at least you’ll be hitting someone! And while there’s often the threat of dying throughout the game, it doesn’t actually happen too often. That’s thanks in large part to the frequent shops, which sell healing items familiar to fans of the Final Fantasy series: Potions, Ethers, and Phoenix Downs.

If Vincent does die during a stage, he keeps all of the items and experience earned up to that point in the stage, giving you the chance to replay with better stats than before. And, at the end of each stage, you can choose between keeping your experience points or converting them to money for weapons upgrades.

One of my favorite features has nothing to do with Dirge’s gameplay mechanics. Though the game automatically saves after each stage, there is a “Tempsave” feature that allows you to save at any point during gameplay. No more staying up an extra 90 minutes because you had to find a save point or finish a mission before shutting the game down for the night. The Tempsave allows you to pause your game until the next time you start up. You restart the game at the exact point that you saved, and the Tempsave file is erased. This is an excellent feature that I hope becomes more commonplace in all genres.

Even though there were many locations from FFVII that could have been included in Dirge, the game’s designers limited the action to a handful of familiar locales and several new ones. While the ruins of the slums under Midgar are stunning, most of the action takes place in near-identical, cramped hallways, so it’s hard to appreciate the old haunts from the original game.

The story Dirge of Cerberus presents is far too large for a shooter game. There are a lot of new characters introduced, including the latest group of villains determined to destroy all life on the planet. (Aren’t there any bad guys who just want to rob a bank, anymore?) Except for Yuffie and Cait Sith, Vincent’s pals from FFVII play only bit parts in the drama.

Vincent’s backstory does nothing but confuse the main plot. We learn a little more about his relationship with Lucrecia, the scientist who birthed uber-villain Sephiroth in the original game. There are some connections between past and present, but what we learn is fractured and hardly illuminates Vincent’s character or the crisis at hand. It seems the amount of information the creators wanted to cram into the game would’ve been better suited for an RPG or another movie.

I finished the game in approximately 12 hours, and that was despite my marginal skills and frequently futile attempts at all of the optional missions. With better accuracy, or by skipping the optional missions, the game is easily beatable in less than 10 hours. If you’ve especially enjoyed the gameplay, 45 additional missions are available once you’ve completed the game, adding dozens of extra hours of fun–or frustration, depending how good you are.

Graphics:
Graphics during gameplay are good, but the real draw is the movie sequences. They’re animated beautifully, in the same style as Advent Children, and they are the only times you get to see some members of the old gang, like Cloud, Tifa, and Barrett.

Sound:
Music is similar in style and quality to other Final Fantasy titles, if not quite as memorable. The ending theme by Japanese rock star Gackt is great, and there’s a chance you’ll spot him in a bonus sequence. The voice actors from Advent Children all return for Dirge of Cerberus. If you liked them in the movie, you’ll probably like them here. Personally, I’m a fan of Cid and Tifa.

Dirge of Cerberus will appeal to most FFVII fans who enjoyed Advent Children and want to try something new, but that’s about it. It may be too remedial for most hardcore fans of shooters, and the story doesn’t stand on its own enough to bring in new fans. Dirge of Cerberus isn’t a bad game, just one with limited appeal.

Review: Dragon Quest VIII

(Note: This review originally appeared at Game-Vixen.com in 2006.)

For the first 10 hours, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King was one of the best RPGs I’d ever played. But I started to have my doubts about it as the pace of the story slowed down. By hour 30, I was just hoping that the game would end soon.

After more than 75 hours of gameplay, I finally completed the interminable game. I couldn’t get the disc out of my PS2 fast enough.

For fans of the Dragon Quest series, this game was a long time coming. The seventh installment in the series, called Dragon Warrior VII in the U.S., was released in 2001 on the original Playstation. To many Dragon Quest fans, the opportunity to spend up to 100 hours playing the latest title must have been considered a gift. But for those of us new to the series, Dragon Quest VIII is an awful introduction.

As the subtitle suggests, the characters in the game search for a way to reverse a curse placed upon a king (and his daughter) by an evil magician. Like most every console RPG, the characters eventually discover that the immediate problem is part of a larger catastrophe that could destroy the world.

Plenty of games have been successful using this story formula. Final Fantasy VII is perhaps the best example of a local issue blooming into a worldwide crisis. But the heart of every Final Fantasy game is its characters, and Dragon Quest VIII simply doesn’t have the heart.

The lead character in the series is The Hero. He’s a guy without a pre-set name, and the player never hears him speak. This technique is not uncommon in Japanese games, but it’s a little jarring for American audiences. It can be hard to get swept up in a story in which lead character is mute. (Not always *cough* Chrono Trigger *cough*, but often.)

We meet The Hero as he’s traveling with the title’s cursed king, Trode (who’s been turned into Yoda’s less sexy brother), the princess Medea (now in horse form), and a reformed thug, Yangus. Along the way, the party is joined by adventurers Jessica and Angelo, who are also looking for the magician that cursed Trode, for their own reasons.

These characters are united by a common goal, but they don’t seem joined by friendship. If the Final Fantasy series has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t do anything without your buddies. Jessica, Angelo, Yangus, and the voiceless Hero rarely interact unless it’s to discuss where the magician’s trail leads next.

Also crippling the characters’ interactions is the incredibly slow-paced voice acting. Nearly everyone speaks as though talking to their 90-year-old grandmother. It ruins the pacing of the game and encourages players to hit the ‘X’ button just to skip the talking and speed things up — a shame, since the quality of the voice acting is otherwise very good.

The story speeds along through its early hours, as Jessica and Angelo join the party, but then stalls out as the characters are forced to undertake numerous pointless sidequests. Find the magic mirror, cheer up the depressed king, find this lady’s son — all as part of the main storyline. Sidequests are fine if they reveal something about the story or are optional tasks, but in Dragon Quest VIII, they don’t and they aren’t.

Along the way, strange things happen that the player can assume are part of a larger mystery, but the story takes too long to reveal what the mystery is. None of the characters even acknowledge that something bigger is going on until almost two-thirds of the way through the game. Revealing the mystery at that late stage without much build-up makes it nearly impossible to provide a satisfying conclusion.

Sound
The game’s best feature is its music. It’s absolutely beautiful and entirely orchestral, sounding like a professional film score. Despite frequent repetition of the overworld, town, and battle themes, I never grew sick of the compositions.

Graphics
Rather than aiming for something realistic and winding up in the uncanny valley, Dragon Quest VIII is straight cel-shaded cartoon. The characters are cute without being cutesy, and the landscape is colorful and inviting.

Gameplay
One of the nice things about Dragon Quest VIII, at least early on, is that the battle system is fairly simple, especially compared with other RPGs. Though you always have precise control over The Hero’s actions, the other characters have autopilot options, which can be switched on and off throughout each battle. It’s refreshing to be able to choose whether you want to take your time micromanaging your characters, or whether you simply set them to automatically beat the tar out of the bad guys.

The character improvement system is simple, too. Apart from allotting a few skill points at each level, most character building is done by upgrading weapons and armor, which can be bought at shops or created by combining items found throughout the game.

Although the easy gameplay features are nice, they also emphasize the weakness of the plot. Eventually, every non-boss battle becomes nothing more complicated or interesting than a couple minutes of pressing the ‘X’ button until it’s over. But you need to grind and endure as many of those battles as you can, just to ensure your characters have enough experience to survive the fights that really matter. Unfortunately, those fights, and the plot advancements that surround them, are far too infrequent.

RPGs like Xenosaga have shown that stripped-down gameplay can be successful when paired with a compelling story. And games like Disgaea have proven that complex gameplay can keep a player’s attention for over a hundred hours, even with a thin storyline.

But Dragon Quest VIII, with its plodding plot and simple battles, ultimately makes for a tedious gaming experience.

Fool Me Thrice, Shame on Me

(Note: This article originally appeared at Game-Vixen.com in 2006.)

Why I Won’t Buy Battle for Middle-Earth II

With the July 5 release of The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth II looming, I wondered if it was time to finally break down and buy an Xbox 360. Revisiting two of Electronic Arts’ previous Lord of the Rings titles, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, disabused me of any need to plunk down money on another game I’ll likely hate.

I should clarify that I’m a huge Lord of the Rings nerd. I saw Fellowship of the Ring 14 times in the theater. My wedding ring is a recreation of The One Ring; I bought it in the same New Zealand jewelry shop where the movies’ rings were forged.

But I was so disappointed in The Two Towers and Return of the King games that I haven’t bothered to play The Third Age or any of the other franchise titles. And I probably won’t try Battle for Middle-Earth II either. What could’ve upset me enough to write off an entire franchise?

EA had everything going for them when they released The Two Towers in 2002. The game graphics were full of detail and transitioned smoothly from the film footage. Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom lent their voices to their game characters, as did many of the other actors from the film. Additionally, players could unlock extra features like artwork from the film and new interviews with the cast. It should’ve made for a great gaming experience.

Instead, the resulting game was painful for fans of the films who aren’t also experts in the action game genre. Progress in the game depended upon how quickly players mastered the combat system. Players earned skill points for dispatching with enemies quickly, and those points enabled players to purchase more powerful combo attacks. If you weren’t fast enough when attacking, you wouldn’t earn enough points to buy the best combos, making subsequent levels more difficult. Basically, if you weren’t good at the game right from the start, you were essentially doomed.

Special missions on several of the levels added to the frustration. Some missions had a time limit, while others required players to kill a specific number of enemies. But other levels had goals that were less clear.

In one level of The Two Towers, I repeatedly pushed invaders’ ladders off of castle walls and killed Uruk-Hai—until some unspecified, offscreen event occurred that resulted in mission failure. I played through again and again, never knowing what I was doing wrong. Eventually, I made it through the level, none the wiser about what I’d done different that time. There are few game design flaws worse than failing to tell your players what they are and aren’t supposed to do in order to progress in the game.

Access to the special interviews and features was totally dependent upon game progress. Because I couldn’t finish the game, I never got to see most of the interviews and other special features. I paid full price for a game I would never be able to fully use—or feel like I truly owned. It was the equivalent of Peter Jackson turning up the theater lights halfway through the film and saying, “Only those of you who can recite the entire Lay of Luthien can stay. The rest of you, get out.”

When the Return of the King game was released, a month before the movie’s theatrical debut, I shelled out full price for the game. I was eager to see a preview of scenes from the movie, and I hoped that the previous game’s flaws would be fixed. A new cooperative play feature meant that my best friend (who saw Fellowship in the theater almost twice as many times as I did) and I could wallop orcs together.

She and I spent a few maddening hours failing at every turn before we turned off the Playstation 2 and resigned ourselves to never seeing the unlockable interviews with Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan. And again, we felt ripped off.

What EA failed to recognize when designing its first two LOTR games was the diverse audience that buys games affiliated with existing creative properties. Obviously there’s a lot of crossover between video game fans and fantasy film fans, but it’s not a homogenous group. Even among gamers, some may only play puzzle games, while others enjoy first-person shooters and RPGs equally.

Because of the skill and interest levels of game buyers who were, foremost, fans of the movies, EA needed to include an easy mode of play to allowed casual fans to blast through the levels and get to the special features. If gameplay wasn’t challenging enough for the hardcore gamers, they could switch to Normal or Hard mode. The “Easy” level included in the released version was anything but, further dashing the hopes of anyone without the skill or patience necessary to stick with the game.

There exists in the video game industry a bias not present in other entertainment media. Most game designers seem to feel that, if you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve to experience the full version of the game. If I want to read the first and last chapters of a book, I can. If I just want to watch a certain scene in a movie, I can skip to its location on the DVD.

But I usually can’t skip ahead in a video game, no matter if it’s boring, or too hard, or if I just don’t have an infinite amount of time to play but still want to see what happens in the end. The game designer has ensured that, even though I paid for a game, I don’t get to decide how I use it.

So I’m stuck with two video games that I will never finish, and I’m out $100. Twice, EA took advantage of my love for the Lord of the Rings films, and I’m not about to be made a fool of again.