Dead Space: Press Button, Receive Beacon.

I don’t scare easily. I used to think I didn’t scare at all. Hell, I’ve watched every minute of every episode of every season of Dancing with the Stars, and I sleep just fine. (Lame excuse: My wife covers DwtS for her blog.)

But Dead Space changed all that.

It isn’t scary in the Silent Hill sense: eerie, foreboding, cerebral, and lonely. Dead Space is more along the lines of a Universal Studios amusement park ride or a high-budget haunted house, and about as subtle.

As you walk down a mostly predetermined path, shit jumps out at you, you scream “Eff you!” at your TV, and then you dump an entire clip of hard-earned ammo into something that you could’ve killed with a couple of well-placed shots — if only you weren’t still so ratcheted up from the last time this exact same thing happened, two minutes earlier.

Basically, it’s about twelve straight hours of this:

For the first several chapters of Dead Space, I could only play for an hour or so at a time. The game wasn’t too creepy or gross, but it made me so tense that I started to get a headache. Eventually, I was able to remind myself that videogame death, while undesirable, is often inevitable and always temporary.

A good deal of credit for the game’s effectiveness goes to the sound design — specifically the music. There’s almost always music playing in Dead Space, though you often won’t even notice it, because the music matches your mood so well. It’s more reactive than evocative.

In most games, music is used to elicit feelings: excitement, joy, sadness, dread. But in Dead Space, the music seems to react right along with you, reinforcing your emotions rather than altering them. When you’re in a safe area, the music is almost unnoticeable. When you accidentally kick a metal box in in a dark hallway, the music thumps and swells a bit, like your heart in your chest. And when a creature drops from the ceiling right in front of your character, a string section squeals (likely in sync with your voice from your couch). The cacophony lasts until you’ve killed the beast and taken some time to catch your breath.

There are few actual musical themes in the game. The score feels largely aleatoric (random and/or improvised). Combining this randomness of content with the reactive nature of the music makes the score almost feel more like sound effects than an orchestral soundtrack. It’s an interesting approach, and I loved it, in concept and execution.

The game looks good, too. The ship’s interiors and exteriors are detailed and gorgeous, the characters are well-designed, and the game’s humanoid monsters, called necromorphs, are suitably nightmarish. The occasional epic set piece really does look epic, even on my measly 32-inch screen. (The game’s concept art is well worth checking out, too, once you’ve completed a playthrough.)

Occasionally, though, I felt that the creators mistook dark and claustrophobic for atmospheric and spooky. Games like Shadow of the Colossus, Disaster Report, Raw Danger, and Indigo Prophecy (Hey, the first half of it was good!) have shown how true atmosphere allows the coolest and creepiest moments to happen in plain view.

But Dead Space doesn’t always trust itself enough to scare you with the lights on. When you’re in an empty room, and some necromorphs suddenly drop in, the ship’s security system locks all doors — to quarantine the area, sensibly — and then…shuts off the lights. Why the hell would the ship’s designer make it that much more difficult for the crew to spot, capture, and kill invaders? There is no reason, of course. It’s just an obvious excuse to stack the deck against the player, and it brought me out of the game whenever it happened.

And it took about two chapters (of the game’s twelve) for me to get tired of the long, twisty, cramped hallways between almost every set of rooms. Even if there were no monsters onboard, it would be a chore to make it to the nearest bathroom in an emergency.

Fortunately, the game’s designers added a cool technique for navigating the ship. Instead of the little maps that often appear in the upper-right corner of some games (e.g., Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy), you press in your controller’s right analog stick, and a line lights up on the ground, directing you to your next destination. You never have to worry about the frustration of being lost or wondering what to do next. I sometimes depend so much on those little maps that I watch them more than what I’m supposed to be looking at. Dead Space’s on-demand pathfinding was much better for keeping me immersed.

And I was immersed, despite a story that kind of sucks. The mythology of the game is interesting, if cliched: something about mystic artifacts, religious zealots, and eternal life. And I liked learning about the Ishimura’s last days from the video, audio, and text logs you find laying about. But your own story is just stupid.

You play Isaac Clarke, an engineer on a small spaceship, the Kellion, that responds to a distress call sent from a big spaceship, the Ishimura. After crash landing on the Ishimura, the Kellion is disabled, so you need to find another way home for you and your surviving crew members.

Your ex-girlfriend, Nicole, happens to be stationed on the Ishimura, so I guess you want to save her, too. At least I’m assuming that’s the case. It’s hard to tell, considering that Isaac never says a single word throughout the game. There’s never any reason for you to care about Nicole — or Isaac, for that matter.

And why make Nicole my ex-girlfriend? What kind of incentive does that give me? You couldn’t get me to lend one of my real life exes twenty bucks, much less run through a ship of zombie-aliens. Nicole should have been a family member, or at the very least your current girlfriend, so there’s some sense of emotional consequence connected to her survival.

Apparently, the only way to save Nicole and get off the Ishimura alive is to embark on a series of fetch quests. Your Kellion compatriots order you to get this part and that part to fix this machine. Then, get this chemical and that chemical from different labs to make a poisonous solution. And so on. Each of these quests is, of course, really just a way to set you up for a series of ambushes by the necromorphs that lurk inside the ship’s ventilation system.

When the necromorphs show up, it’s time to start shooting. Isaac has plenty of weapons to choose from, though you’ll probably settle on a select few that you like best. I just used one, the Line Gun, for almost the entire game, because it could hit from long range, did a ton of damage (after upgrades), and had a wide enough area of effect that I didn’t have to worry so much about my horrible reflexes and aiming skills. It was the one weapon that didn’t really have a downside, except that its Line Rack ammo was sometimes at a premium. When I was low on Racks, I temporarily switched to the game’s default weapon, the Plasma Cutter, a laser pistol for which it’s almost impossible to run out of shots.

When you can’t find the ammunition and med packs you need inside one of the Ishimura’s many supply boxes or strewn among the viscera of slain enemies, you can always purchase them from one of the automated stores stationed around the ship. I felt a little guilty that I always seemed to have enough money to buy the weapons I needed to commit monster genocide, and yet the hundreds of Ishimura crew members before me were so poor or foolish that they apparently never combined their meager resources to buy themselves a few guns and some armor.

Speaking of armor and feeble civilians, I’ve always thought it was silly in videogames that the faceless extras in cutscenes always die from a single gunshot or stabbing, while the main character can somehow take a dozen bullets to the face before slowing down. In Dead Space though, this actually makes some sense. Isaac himself isn’t any more invulnerable than a normal human. His armor, however, is. Your hit points aren’t really yours; they belong to your armor. It’s a small detail, but I appreciated it.

Dead Space’s standard combat is fun. The mechanics are similar to other third-person shooters (e.g. Resident Evil, Uncharted), and the difficulty is well-balanced. There are spots where you’ll die a few times. But because the necromorphs are programmed to pop out of the exact same place at the exact same moment each time you enter an area, it’s easy to prepare yourself for subsequent attempts after a restart.

The trick to fighting in Dead Space is retraining yourself to keep from targeting the usual body parts. Unlike most shooters, going for the head or chest hardly does anything to your enemies. Instead, you kill them most efficiently by going for appendages: arms, legs, tentacles. This can be tough, especially when your instincts scream for you to blow off the head every time something jumps into view. But that’s part of what keeps the game fun and tense; you decapitate an enemy, and he still comes running at you.

If things get too frantic or your ammo gets too low, you can use Stasis and Kinesis powers, which allow you to slow down enemies and hurl nearby items (including detached body parts) as weapons, respectively. I didn’t use Kinesis too much. But I grew addicted to Stasis. It gives you a few seconds to duck out of the way of an incoming attack and put yourself into a better position for retaliation. Your supply of Stasis Juice (or whatever gives you the ability) is limited, but I used a cheat code to get more whenever I was in real danger. I’m not proud.

Though every enemy encounter seems like an event of some magnitude at the beginning of the game, the sameness of the hallways and small labs and control rooms — and the endless battles that occur within them — eventually seem like filler to make sure the game lasts at least ten hours. Almost every chapter is essentially the same: fetch this, fetch that, fetch the other thing, and then leave the deck. And sometimes, even the locations are the same. By the fifth chapter, you’re already revisiting areas you’ve previously scoured.

But amidst the filler, there are some truly epic set pieces and some innovative twists on typical shooter gameplay.

At several points in Dead Space, you’ll enter zero gravity areas. In these, your magnetic boots turn just about any surface into a floor, from your perspective. So, you can leap to a ceiling a hundred feet overhead, and the room will flip over for you. This adds a truly three-dimensional feel to the game, it can make a single room feel like like several different ones, and fights become much more complex — and less predictable.

The scale of some of the set pieces is awesome. In particular, a task that consists of placing an SOS beacon on an object suitable for launching into deeper space provides one of the most memorable sequences in the game.

And all of Chapter Six (Hydroponics) is a blast. Rather than strict fetch quests, it’s more of a Hide and Seek or Capture the Flag level. Plus, it has what may be the best battle of the whole game. I enjoyed that chapter so much, I was a little disappointed when the fetch quests returned.

Overall, I enjoyed Dead Space a lot. Sure, I have some complaints, but I almost always have complaints. The combat was fun, the visual design was fantastic, the music was outstanding, and — most importantly — it was truly scary. At twelve hours, it did feel a little padded. I’ll take a tightly executed four (Portal) or eight (Heavenly Sword) hour experience over a longer good-but-repetitive game every time. But, all in all, it was twelve hours well-spent.


Folklore: First (and Last) Impressions

My brother sent me Folklore, a game he’s played and finished (review here).

In theory, this game mixing occult, fairie, Celtic myth, and the netherworld should be right up my dork alley.

Unfortunately, while the concept is great and the visuals were beautiful the gameplay and mechanics are anything but.  That simply made the game unplayable for me.

The game starts out interestingly enough, mingling the story of a young woman who receives a letter from the mother she thought was dead and a cynical reporter for an occult magazine.  The young woman receives a letter from the mother she’s thought dead for years.  It simply says, “Meet me in the Village of  Doolin.” Meanwhile, the reporter receives a mysterious phone call imploring the same of him, “Come to the village of Doolin.”  Doolin, as we see in a cutscene is a town thought to be haunted.

That’s as far as I’m going with the story.  You get to pick whether you want to play a chapter as the girl or the reporter.  If you’re familiar with the old (and classic) King’s Quest series, Folklore is merely a mentally challenged, graphically beautiful descendant of that series.  Gaming has come a long way since King’s Quest, but Folklore’s programmers didn’t quite realize that.  Aside from the beautiful scenery, you cannot manipulate any of your environs.  Want to talk to a bar patron?  Can’t.  Want to go behind the bar?  Can’t.   Want to go check something out that doesn’t pertain to the immediate quest at hand?  Can’t.  I hate that type of linear crap in this day and age. There is nothing to do but run from scene to scene and incur significant loading times between each screen.  On a PS3, in a game that does not even come close to challenging the PS3 pixel and frame rate, that is completely unacceptable.

I got far enough to engage in some minor combat.  Like the game, the combat system is intriguing in concept (you suck out the Id, or energy of your enemies and use it to attack others), but fails in execution.  It’s just old school hack and slash using one button at a time.  Square Square Square, enemy dead!  Oh the thrill.

I’m sure the story is interesting, but I simply don’t have the time or inclination to suffer through endless load times, non-manipulative environments, repetitive quests (see Greg’s review again, you have to play each level w/ both players—lame), and constant running back and forth.

Sorry Folklore people.  You had a great story, but you botched the execution.  Folklore is a loser.

Heavenly Sword, or, Super-hot Sword Wielding Superwoman

narikoI’d put off playing Heavenly Sword (HS) for quite some time, even though I knew I’d love it. It turns out my purchase was worth it. Heavenly Sword does have its faults, but the beauty of the game, the interesting story (written by Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Terry), cutscenes and innovative combat system push the envelope of PS3 capabilities.

HS is the most gorgeous game I’ve ever played. I’m not just talking about the main character, Nariko (who makes Lara Croft look like an old hag by comparison, and I’m totally in love with her by the way), but the entire game. From lush backgrounds, to epic battles, to professionally acted cutscenes, this game is beautiful.

HS is also the first game I’ve played where I didn’t mind the Sixaxis controls. My previous encounters with the Sixaxis (Ratchet and Clank, Uncharted) left me frustrated. In Heavenly Sword you can control arrows and cannonballs, and it’s actually kind of fun when you get the hang of it. (Note to developers—the Sixaxis still sucks and should not be incorporated into new games. Though it worked in Heavenly Sword, the analog stick controls would have worked just fine for the arrows/cannonballs).

The combat in Heavenly Sword takes more than a few lines from my all-time favorite hack and slasher, God of War 2. As I’ve noted before, I don’t mind imitation. The good thing about HS is that it expands on that model in some intriguing new ways. Once Nariko gains control of the actual Heavenly Sword, she has three combat stances; Speed (fast, light attacks), Range (swing your sword in an arc on a chain, remind you of Kratos in GoW?), and Power (slow and heavy damage). The stance you choose also affects your defense. Before they attack, enemies briefly glow blue (Speed), orange (Power) or red (certain heavy enemies/bosses, Unblockable). If you are in Speed stance, you automatically defend blue attacks, in Power, orange attacks. While this is an excellent concept, it failed somewhat in practice. You don’t get much of a warning before enemies attack, so it’s often more useful to simply attack them and roll away (another Kratos move) to avoid damage. In addition, blocking doesn’t help much when you’re surrounded by 10 attacking enemies (this happens often).

That being said, the combat is epic, and in most cases is seamless and fluid (if somewhat hectic because of insane number of enemies), which is important to me. (For an example of the slowest, most disjointed combat engine, play the AWFUL game, Viking: Battle for Asgard.) You will be involved in battles where there are hundreds of enemies on the screen and you will have to kill all of them. All I can say is that part of the game is just fucking awesome, and my only gripe was that I wish it had gone on a little longer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can pick up and throw almost anything as a weapon in this game, from watermelons to the bodies of dead enemies (cool!).

HS mixes it up by also providing you with a second playable character at certain points in the game, Kai. Kai is Nariko’s younger adopted sister. Her weapon is a strange rifle crossbow that incorporates a ranged shooting dynamic to the game. When Kai gets too close to enemies, you’ll have to utilize her cat-like gymnastic abilities to put some distance between her and the baddies. During most of Kai’s combat you’ll be steering arrows with the Sixaxis. You take control of arrows in slow motion and steer them to their targets. It’s pretty fun to nail the baddies in as many body parts as possible—head shots, butt shots, groin shots. In addition, keep an eye out for flame braziers. Guide your arrow through a brazier flame, then steer it to a conveniently-placed gunpowder barrel to blow up multiple enemies.

Combat with Kai can be fun, but be prepared for a pretty steep learning curve and some initial frustration. My advice would be to take your time and play her 1st mission a couple of times through to improve your skills early.

The storytelling in Heavenly Sword also pushes the envelope of games-as-art. Nariko’s journey has a melancholy splendor to it that matches her physical beauty. From the beginning of the game, we know that the Heavenly Sword is cursed—it grants great power, but it also drains the life of any mortal wielding it. Nariko’s sacrifice to take up the sword and save her people makes for great storytelling and director Andy Serkis (Gollum from LoTR) does a first-rate job with his professional cast. Serkis himself voices the evil King Bohan; if there were an Oscar for best actor in a game, he’d deserve it. The ample cutscenes will draw you in and make you feel as if you are part of a movie — a stated goal of the developers.

Finally, two minor gripes. The first is that the game was too short (6-7 hours to finish). As a fan of shorter games, I am saying this only because I loved the story and gameplay so much, I did not want it to end. My assumption is that PS3 games take a god-awful amount of time to program and that adding the voice acting/cutscenes into this game probably doubled the production time. Making the game longer may have put production out another year or two. So, I guess I’d rather have it be short and good than long and bad (again, see Viking: Battle for Asgard for a game that was too long and clearly released before it was a final product).

Second, the final boss battle, while not impossible, left me frustrated. All the combat skills you gain throughout the game are tossed out the window. There is no reason to try to defend against the close range melee attacks of the final boss; they are too quick and/or unblockable. So you are left with avoiding, avoiding, avoiding him until he uses a ranged attack. You then have to block that at just the right time to have it bounce back and hit him. All the hack and slash fun of the game is drained out from this battle. Lame.

It’s also a long battle, as he has several incarnations. Which brings me to my second point: you are both infused with godly power for this battle, but his godly powers are clearly way, way better than your own. I hate it when developers do this (and HS developers are not alone in this). I’m fine with final bad guys being tough, but if we are both being granted additional powers, can’t I get something cool out of it besides a white glow? He gets wings, flying, raven hordes to attack me, power bolts, super speed, and all I get is a heavenly white glow? Boo! I could have at least had some sort of Angel Bomb or something.

Heavenly Sword is a game that I felt didn’t get the praise it deserved. While not perfect, it pushed the PS3 envelope in creativity, design, visuals, combat and storytelling (and it has an amazing soundtrack). Here’s to hoping there’s a sequel in the works — and that other developers will learn something from Heavenly Sword’s design.

Folklore: Whofore Art Thou, Charlotte?

This week, Kathy and I finished playing Folklore. I bought the game because I’d heard the story was great, and — as I wrote previously — I’d heard it was supposed to be an RPG. Wrong on both counts.

The gameplay was action/adventure throughout, with some RPG aspects, like leveling up and resource management. That was a bit of a surprise, but not a disappointment.

The disappointment was in how the story devolved into a mess.

The plot conveniences may have been helpful cop-outs for those who wrote them, but they made little sense to me. Important non-playable characters showed up with no explanation and then disappeared or died with little fanfare. One of the game’s seemingly major plots, a series of murders, is dismissed (pretty much resolution- and justice-free) with a few lines of dialogue about three-quarters of the way through.

And I never did learn to care about either of the two protagonists, who both alternated between braindead and omniscient. They either figured stuff out hours after I did, or they sussed out plot points with no evidence or explanation whatsoever.

My favorite unintentionally funny example of this was near the end of the game (This is so minor as to not even really be a spoiler). I’m walking around this Irish village where most of the game takes place, talking to people for what may be the last time. As my final stop, I go into the local pub to say my goodbyes to the barkeep. Our conversation ends with my character saying something like, “It’s important that Charlotte has a father. Promise me that you’ll take care of her.” The barkeep solemnly swears he will.

That’s all fine, except for one thing: Who the hell is Charlotte? I’d never even seen her or heard of her, much less met her! Yet, somehow, she means so much to me that the last lines I speak to a member of this village are about her. I found out afterward that she’s some little girl who spends the game in a building you never need to enter — so I hadn’t.

All that said, I kind of loved the game. The gameplay was a lot of fun. It wasn’t too twitchy and reaction-based. Even with my crap reflexes, it was possible to beat most battles with a good plan*. I always appreciate that.

My only gameplay complaint was regarding the placement of save points. Most games let you save right before a boss battle. Folklore, however, makes you save a few screens before each boss. So, should you lose against the boss, you have to waste about 10-15 minutes blasting through the same dozen chumps beforehand, every goddamn time. Besides that, though, I thought the battle system was well-constructed and fair.

And while the story’s execution was weak at times, the premise (fighting with and against faery folk in the land of the dead) and moral messages (including a kind of rebuttal of Pascal’s Wager) were cool.

Overall, I enjoyed Folklore and consider it twenty hours well-spent. But I’m still waiting for the PS3’s first great story (Uncharted is tops, so far). And I hope some full-fledged RPGs start rolling out on the system, soon. Fortunately, I’ve still got a bit of leftover PS2 fare (e.g., Persona 3) to tide me over.

* – There was, however, one boss battle that was tedious, unfair, and had Kathy and me on the brink of quitting. It was this giant flying, spinning lizard/shrimp/fish boss that would leave the screen for minutes at a time. So, even after we came up with a strategy to beat it, the battle took half a freaking hour each time we tried. After four or five tries, we were close to chucking the whole game. It was just stupid.

Viking: Battle for Asgard — Run Away!

A highly touted, much-anticipated (at least by us) PS3 release, Viking ultimately falls flat on its lumbering, running face.

2 out of 10, THIS GAME SUCKS

Do you like to run? Do you like to run around a huge, empty world and pick up bags of gold? Do you like to run back through terrain you just spent 15 minutes running through? Then would you like to run some more? If you answered “Yes!” to all these questions, then Viking is the game for you. A more fitting name might have been Viking: Battle of Marathon.

The game, much like the similarly disappointing Assassin’s Creed, begins well enough. The undead legions of the Norse goddess, Hel, have overrun human settlements in her quest for vengeance against her fellow gods. You, the Viking warrior, Skarin, are saved from death in battle by the goddess, Freya, who wishes to save the realm.

Unfortunately, Skarin is a lifeless cardboard cutout with no personality. It appears Freya chose you as champion for no particular reason, other than that you dress differently from all the other vikings, who all dress the same. There is no backstory here; you don’t have a personality or motivation worth mentioning (unlike the compelling, family-murdering Kratos in God of War). You are just a random dying warrior Freya saved.

For the first few hours, I was enjoying myself. The ample violence and brutality of kills was enough to keep me interested. One particularly violent joy in this game is one of your finishing moves, where you whack the enemy’s head right off. As if he’s not dead enough already, you then hack down and take off his arms. I thought it was humorous, as it certainly is overkill (pun intended).

However, after a few more hours, the excessive running around began to slowly bleed out any enjoyment I felt. Thankfully, there are leystones, which serve as teleport points between areas in the game. Unfortunately, they can be few and far between, and they don’t help you with the recurrent backtracking in certain areas. Since the developers decided to make this game so running-intensive, they at least should have provided a sprint option to navigate more quickly.

The combat in Viking (like in many other games) steals amply from the God of War series. GoW continues to be the gold standard in hack-and-slash and must serve as the standard of judgment for games with similar combat systems.

When compared to the rapid-paced action of the GoW entries, Viking cannot compete. Skarin is more like a lumbering tank, and anything but your fastest attack takes a few seconds to initiate — and there are charged attacks that take even longer. It leads to a lot of awkward standing involved, while you and your enemies charge up. This all gives the game a clunky, ponderous feel, lacking the graceful and seamless fluidity in GoW combat.

That being said, there are powerup moves you can acquire to make combat a bit more interesting. However, the developers created built-in limitations for these powerups: you need to acquire crystal orbs from defeated enemies to utilize your new moves. Many of the moves require two crystals, and you can only stock five crystals at a time. So, once you run out (and you will quickly), you are back to standard stock attacks. It’s a needless restriction that contributes to the overall annoying nature of combat. Finally, when performing finishing moves on enemies, the game goes into slow motion. I cannot tell whether this is due to software/processor glitches or if it’s intentional. In any event, by the time you perform your 357th killing move in slow motion, you will be bored to death and wish it was over more quickly.

Here is my theory on these games: If you aren’t going to improve upon GoW-type combat, then at the very least, don’t do worse. I’d rather developers steal directly than drop the ball.

To obtain the advanced moves, you must visit the battle arena. There, a warrior spirit from Valhalla will train you. Oddly, you have to pay this ghost in gold for new skills. This bothers me. If there was a priest there, who demanded cash for access to the spirit, as a tithe to the Gods, I’d be fine with it. But directly paying a ghost in gold seems pretty stupid to me. What use does he have for gold? The developers should have gotten creative and had you drag him the head of a bad guy as a blood offering or something. I could see a ghost wanting that. It’s too bad designers get so comfortable with the gaming conventions and fail to see that gold as payment for all things is just a perpetuation of lame, status quo gaming. Details matter more and more in games, and paying a ghost in gold to train you is a sign of laziness.

You can also power up your axe and sword with fire, ice, and lightning runes. This works as a sort of hybrid between the magics and Rage of the Gods in GoW. You have a red meter that, when activated, powers up with whichever element rune you choose. It remains powered up until the meter drains to empty. These powerups are largely useless at lower levels. Your enemies crackle with minor energy damage (lightning), turn blue/white (ice) or run a bit red (fire). It improves later in the game, but still, this was another area where the developers were clearly lazy and went for a modest effect, rather than taking the time and energy to create something interesting and effective.

Another combat-related problem that Viking has is that the power orbs you pick up from dead enemies (these are red/green orbs that are blatantly stolen from GoW) don’t automatically flow to you—you have to get close enough to absorb them. This kind of sucks when you whack a guy and he falls off a cliff (there are lots of cliffs) or you step away a few feet to hack another person. This was a notable problem in GoW1 that was fixed in GoW2; in the sequel, the orbs automatically came to you after a kill. It is inexcusable that the developers of Viking would fail on this detail. Running around in a little circle and backtracking after every single kill (you will rack up hundreds) soon gets tedious.

One area worthy of praise is that you automatically go into a “stealth” mode when approaching enemies. You can purchase a combat upgrade from the warrior spirit that will allow for even better stealth and stealth kills. In some cases, enemies are actually asleep (why do undead warriors need sleep?) and you can initiate a quick kill on them. This is pretty cool, and I’m glad they thought of it. I enjoy these little details (when they get them right).

For most of the game, you will spend your time running around to free captive Vikings. These freed warriors will eventually amass into an army to attack a fort, stockade or stronghold. It remains unclear why Hel’s minions are capturing Vikings and allowing them to remain fully armed, armored, and dangerous in ramshackle wooden prisons. It also remains unclear how 15 fully armed and armored Vikings are not able to smash out of their dainty wooden prisons, but Skarin alone is able to do so on their behalf.

I’d also like to know why Hel’s minions are keeping fully armed and armored Vikings captive rather than just killing them. It could be that the undead eat them for food — that would be fine with me. But it still doesn’t explain why they are left fully armed and armored (sorry to beat this to death).

The objectives in the game are outlined in a map much like the one in Assassin’s Creed. However, it doesn’t really tell you which objective (there can be several) you should accomplish first. In some cases it’s intuitive, but in others, you run to an objective, only to find it is locked (you need a key) or blocked (you need explosives or something). You will then have to spend 5 to 10 minutes running to the next objective, hoping beyond hope that it is not locked.

At some point you will have freed enough Vikings to form an army and can call them to battle. The cutscenes here are pretty dramatic: dozens to hundreds of Viking warriors marching on dozens to hundreds of evil undead. You then take control of Skarin and the battle is on. While conceptually enticing, these mass battles fail in application.

Your Vikings do help you kill the bad guys, but they are strategically ineffective. First, there is so much going on, it is difficult to locate Skarin.

Second, you can in no way direct your army. They are morons. Many objectives require cutting through the enemy to kill multiple shamans who are raising undead reinforcements well behind the front lines. Viking allies hit the first wave of attackers and never penetrate much. That means you will have to wade through (and avoid) scores of creatures to get to the shaman. The game should have at least allowed for calling half a dozen Vikings to assist in your attack — a strike team of sorts.

You will also unlock dragons to assist you in battle. How awesome, you say! Locate a dragon gem, charge it with magic, place it on the dragon summoning stone and awake to service an 800-year-old beast! Look out, bad guys! I’m coming to battle and raining fire on you! Well, it’s not that easy. After you enter a large battle, only then do you find out that you also need a dragon rune to call the dragon to aid. Where do you locate one? Good question. After killing the first shaman in battle (shamans tend to be major battle objectives) you get a dragon rune! Now you will be ready to rain fire down on the other shaman! Not yet. You need two runes to destroy a shaman. So you have to destroy a second shaman before killing the third shaman.

Also of note is the development that shamans just happened to arbitrarily be carrying the one and only magic item Skarin can use to summon a dragon and destroy him and his fellow shamans! That seems awfully convenient. I was sure that, as the game went on, my enemies would wise up and destroy all the useless-to-them dragon runes they were carrying, so that I couldn’t use them, right? Nope. They carry them throughout the game. Idiots. I have no problem finding magic items in odd locations (like where I found the dragon gem), but the notion that bad guys would carry a rare and useless-to-them method of their own destruction for no particular reason irks me to no end.

Ok, finally, I was thinking I’d get some awesome cutscene fire rampage! Think again. You click the buttons to summon the dragon, it appears in the sky, it dives quickly, it breathes fire on the shaman, and (in the first battle) the battle abruptly ends. You’ve won. It all takes about 3 to 4 seconds (I counted) and was extremely anti-climactic. The quick dragon summoning you see in the commercials/trailers for this game is all that is actually in the game. At the very least, I thought it would be like summoning Bahamut (or Neo Bahamut or Bahamut Zero) in Final Fantasy VII on PS1. Remember how cool that was (and 10 years ago at that)? All the air in the vicinity got sucked up, the screen went black, and then a dragon appeared in space and spewed forth a laser that incinerated your enemies? This was nothing as cool as that.

So here we are again, where a PS3 game is trumped by scenes in a PS1 game from what, a decade ago? By way of additional comparison (to see how Viking fails to stack up), see the summoning videos of Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, as well as from the PS1, below.

It is a sad commentary on the state of PS3 development that the summons for the handheld PSP are excessively superior to the dragon summoning on the PS3 for Viking. It is absolutely ridiculous (I’m having buyer’s remorse. Perhaps I should have bought the PSP instead of PS3).

Viking Dragon (what you will see in battle is when the dragon burns the beached longboat at 1:21):

FFVII Crisis Core Bahumut PSP (holy shit is this cool!):

FFVII Crisis Core Phoenix PSP:

All Original FFVII Summons:

FFVII Bahamut Zero (PS1):

The voice acting in Vikings is subpar. Your allies all have cheesy British accents and stilted speech patterns. The script is about as cardboard as Skarin’s personality.

I was willing to cut Viking a lot of slack, because on paper it seemed tailor made for my interests: an ultraviolent hack-and-slash Viking game (my dream)! However, that only goes so far. This game ain’t no GoW2 (the greatest warrior game to date, and if you are going to aim for this target, you’d better not miss), nor does it come close.

Viking, much like Assassin’s Creed (review here) is not a finished product. I can only conclude the developers made an economic decision and rushed the beta version to market without proper testing and quality control. This seems to be an increasing pattern for PS3 releases (see Assassin’s Creed, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, Army of Two, Turok, etc.). You may enjoy Viking for about 2 hours. I did. But after that, getting through it is a marathon that will test your endurance for repetitive stupidity. My advice would be to pass this game up and go replay God of War 2. It might be the only thing capable of washing the bad taste of Viking out of your mouth.

Folklore: Early Impressions

I’ve owned Folklore for a while, waiting for the right time to start it. Today, Kathy and I finally set aside some time to blitz through a couple chapters.

The game takes place in two locations: Doolin, a town on the west coast of Ireland, and the Netherworld, a land occupied by faeries, monsters, and the spirits of the dead. As the game begins, two people arrive in Doolin on the same day. Ellen, a 22-year-old woman, recently received a letter from her long-dead mother, instructing her to visit the village. Keats, a 27-year-old publisher of occult magazines, came at the request of a mysterious phone caller.

Going through the game, you’re given the option to play as either Ellen or Keats. After completing a chapter, you can either continue to the next chapter with the same character, or you can switch characters and see the events of the current chapter from another point of view. We’ve been switching from character to character, hoping to get the whole story in one playthrough.

When not fighting, the storyline and presentation are similar to an RPG or point-and-click adventure. You walk around town (or the civilized areas of the Netherworld) and talk to everyone you can, hoping to piece together the story and find out about your next task.

There’s very little voice acting in the game. Most of the cutscene interactions occur in subtly animated comic book style panels, complete with dialogue balloons. It kind of makes me feel like I’m playing an old PSX game, like Vagrant Story, which is fine with me. It also means more time for the game’s excellent music.

So far, I’m intrigued by the main story, though the lead characters haven’t really done much to win me over, yet. When Ellen meets a talking scarecrow, learns that she’ll be travelling to the land of the dead, and dons a cloak that instantly transforms her from Hollywood Ugly (dowdy clothes and a ponytail) into Videogame Hot (no ponytail and plenty of midriff), she acts like it’s exactly what she was expecting to happen in Doolin.

Keats, at least, rants a bit about how unlikely it is that the Netherworld and its Faeries exist. The only problem with his skepticism: he tells all this to an invisible fucking man. Seriously.

So far, battles only occur in the Netherworld. Your character collects the Id (i.e., soul) of each type of creature — called folk — you’ve defeated. You then summon these folk to attack your next batch of enemies. It’s a pretty cool concept.

I’ve heard Folklore called an RPG. It’s not. While there is some resource management, it doesn’t amount to much more than deciding which folk to bring into a particular battle. And the combat is definitely not turn-based. It’s straight action. The system is much more similar to Okami or Kingdom Hearts than to Final Fantasy. We haven’t played nearly enough to have learned all the ins and outs of combat strategy, so it could be a while before I’ve really made up my mind about it.

The game does have some Sixaxis stupidity. Several months into my PS3 ownership, I still hate everything Sixaxis. In order to grab the folks’ Ids, you have to move the controller around a bit. Happily, it’s been pretty easy so far (as opposed to the pain in the ass of tossing grenades in Uncharted), but I just hate how Sixaxis usage been tacked on to just about every PS3 game, for no good reason.

So far, I’m enjoying Folklore. The presentation is great, the story’s interesting, and the battle system suits the game. When we finish it, I’ll let you know if it fulfilled its promise.

Playing It So You Don’t Have To: Assassin’s Creed

a/k/a Slacker Ass Compliant Retardo Bartender Hostage Game

4 out of 10

(Note—this review contains numerous spoilers, including end-of-game spoilers. Believe me, I am doing you a favor. Play this game only if you have 30-40 hours to kill and love stupid characters; gaping plot holes and bizarre character motivations; and repetitive missions/combat that involve the same buttons and gameplay devices over and over and over. As always, my reviews target discerning thirtysomething gamers with limited gaming time on their hands due to a career, a life, a family, or any combination of the above.)

My brother is lucky that his wife is a gamer. That meant he (they) got a PS3 long before I could justify one to my wife. When visiting over Thanksgiving, he’d recently purchased Assassin’s Creed. When we loaded it, the graphics amazed me; it was the first time I’d seen a PS3 game in person, and I was not disappointed. My first impression of the gameplay interested me enough to think the plot would delve deep and the action would get more rewarding.

All this led me to start saving some bucks, and, when Blu-Ray rendered HD-DVD dead, I had two reasons to buy the PS3. Luckily, I only played AC for 45 minutes during that Thanksgiving visit, or I may never have purchased a PS3.

Assassin’s Creed sucks you in with promises of an epic storyline spanning centuries (stitched together via a DNA-reading ancestral memory device) and lavish, stunning graphics. But the gameplay gets stale fast, and the storyline and character motivations arc quickly from promising to boring and nonsensical. Put simply, you’re soon left with a beautiful game that sucks.

You begin the game in a state-of-the-art laboratory in the modern era. You are not a scientist. You are Desmond Miles, a captive of the (you will soon find out) evil Abstergo Corporation. You have been kidnapped against your will and are under the care of two scientists: a stuffy older man and a hot chick (obligatory!) dressed up like the educators in Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video.

It is explained to you that Abstergo is seeking to access your “ancestral memories” with its newest creation, the previously mentioned DNA-memory-accessing device called the Animus. The Animus is the very, very expensive-looking glass hybrid of a Posturepedic bed and a dentist’s chair. When lying on it, the machine enables you to relive your ancestor’s lives. Why is Abstergo interested in you? Well, apparently one of your ancestors played a crucial role in the Crusades at the time of King Richard the Lionheart, and they need access to your memories to get answers about something or other.

This is a compelling premise, and I suspended my disbelief for hours of gameplay. Unfortunately, you quickly learn things about your modern-day self that you might not like to know. For instance, though you’re descended from the world’s elite assassins, you have spurned that intriguing heritage to forge your own path as a….bartender?

Really? I’m a bartender? Ok, that will be a minor hiccup, I think. I will not lie down and take this captivity meekly! These scientists have in no way restrained me, so I will turn the tables, trash their lab and hold them hostage! Yes, that fire extinguisher on the wall! I will grab it and, with assassin’s blood flowing through my veins, knock out both my captors and then use it to destroy the Animus! Sure, there are cameras, and security will get here soon, but not until I indefinitely suspend this experiment with some good old mayhem! I will not go gently into that good night!

Or not.

It turns out you can’t manipulate anything in the large lab in which you have the full run. You can rarely even manipulate something as elementary as a computer screen (hey, it might have access to The Internets, and you could email out a cry for rescue!), much less knock your captors out with a couple of well-timed blows.

And even though you know it won’t work, you will try to manipulate absolutely everything again, the next time you’re in between missions — just in case. I admit it, I was a fool and wasted a lot of time doing this. There is only one time that you can interact with anything; oddly, you can steal a pen at one point. Whoopdee do! (If you don’t grab it, you can’t access one minor side plot at the end of the game.)

While many designers have taken to mixing the gaming world up by introducing flawed antiheroes such as Kratos (God of War) and Dante (Devil May Cry), the team at Assassin’s Creed took an different tack. They decided the world of protagonists had gone long enough without a non-threatening, compliant, slacker-retardo bartender whose only objection to being kidnapped is a mild case of the shoulder shrugs and a “Well, what can you do?” attitude. You have clearly been kidnapped against your will and yet, oddly, you do not seem to give a shit.

While your present-day self leaves much to be desired, your ancestral assassin alter ego is all kinds of badass. Or is he? The initial Crusade-era gameplay introduces you to Altair, an oxymoronic reckless master assassin who — by way of introduction — murders an old man, blows his own cover, gets one of his partners murdered and another’s arm cut off, and, worst of all, gets his super-assassin-ass kicked by a French guy.

I was ready to be hanged or drawn and quartered for this catastrophic disaster. But no, your gross ineptitude leads to the grave consequence of your rank being stripped by the Guild’s master. On the plus side, it turns out your rank meant next to nothing anyhow, since everyone in your organization hates you (clearly with good cause).

Your further punishment for your transgressions: you must assassinate some very high profile targets. That’s a punishment? Sounds more like what you are supposed to be doing for a living.

Ok, let’s go with that, though. En route to your many (9 or something) assassinations, you will notice the game has serious repetitiveness issues. In short, your first mission is the same as your last mission. You get directions from the master. You run down a hill from the Assassin’s stronghold. You kill a few guards and civilians along the way for fun. You leave the town and ride a horse along a winding trail for some time. You visit the Guild Office in that town and have pointless conversations with the bureau chief. You have to climb very tall towers in the town to get your bearings and unlock missions (the views are pretty, but by the time you’ve climbed your 87th tower, believe me, you will be pissed).

It’s almost as if the developers are punishing you: if they had to spend that much goddamn time programming this place, they sure as hell are going to make you wander around the same areas time and again to “enjoy” their handiwork. Here’s what I view them thinking, “See that mountain? I sure programmed a pretty fucking mountain. Nice tree too. Fucking beautiful. No really, look at it for the 97th time, and ride the horse down that same path for the 25th time, and enjoy it some more, why don’t you. Oh, and don’t forget to climb that tower, again!”

After visiting the bureau chief (By the way, bureau chiefs are all assholes too, just like you are. The guy who got his arm cut off and his brother killed because you were an asshole is a bureau chief, too. But I think he has a lifetime pass to be a prick to you), you pickpocket someone for information, or beat up an evil sympathizer for information, or talk to an informant, or sometimes all three.

Allegedly, this process will give you valuable information to help you eliminate your target, with tips like these (and I am not making this up): “Approach scholars to blend in,” (something you learned to do in the first training mission); “Robert’s men are well-armed,” and “The only thing more dangerous than a drunken sailor is one who is angry.” (Huh? But what about an angry, drunken sailor? Touche, Assassin’s Creed designers!) Thanks for the intel, dickwads. I would never have been able to commit my public, daytime, bloodbath massacre assassinations without it!

Early in the game, you get in trouble from your master for asking questions. You are an assassin, he says. You eliminate targets; it is not in your job description to question. That sounds fair enough to me, and if I ran a guild that directive would appear near the top of the policy guidelines.

Yet, as the game progresses, you start asking more and more questions. The kind of questions that clearly helped get you demoted in the beginning of the game. The kind of questions that should get you thrown out and/or killed, especially considering your tenuous position within the guild.

Yet, the questions you ask, and the answers you discover, turn out to be pretty irrelevant. For instance, in one mission, the leader of a city is burning books. Your leader makes this clear, as do the townspeople, as does your bureau chief. And, as if that is not enough, there are piles of books burning in the street, just to drive home the point. Could anything be less necessary to an assassin’s mission? Does it matter if the target is burning books, growing flowers, or painting rainbows? No. you should just be focused on the assassination. Agent 47 would never ask these kinds of questions.

As the game unfolds, you will find it centers on the assassinations of Templar leaders who have banded together to establish a new rule in the Middle East by defeating both Christians (King Richard) and Muslims (Saladin). It is the Templar leaders whom you are eradicating.

Each time you kill one, you interrogate him for information on their deathbed. Each time they give you some lame-ass line about how you are going to fail, they are not evil, only seeking true justice, blah blah blah blah blah. When you kill the final Templar target, he confesses to you that there are in fact 10 Templar leaders, and that you have only killed nine! The final Templar leader is…the head of the Assassin’s Guild, your boss, Al Mualim!

Ok, time out here for some serious WTF action. You have been systematically wiping out the Templar leadership at the behest of Al Mualaim. Fine. But the other Templar leaders must know that Al Mualaim is sending you for them from the beginning of the game. And yet, not one of these targets has the sense to tell you, even on his deathbed, that Al Mualim was a despotic Templar bent on furthering his own power and you were simply his tool? Not fine.

It makes no sense whatsoever. By the third or fourth assassination, these guys would have been singing like canaries, telling you your master is a power-mad Templar and you should be targeting him, not them. You’ve got to be kidding me.

Other things you would not (and should not) like about this game:

  • In the game’s opening movie, you have a crossbow. In the actual game, you do not. Long range targeting would have made this game much better.
  • The fighting engine is extremely repetitive. Every single fight will involve square, square, square, R1. Square, square, square, R1. Run away to gain health. Repeat ad nauseum.
  • You sleep several nights in the lab during the gameplay. You do not change clothes or shower. Slob.
  • There is no such thing as a stealth assassination of a main target in this game (unlike the Hitman series, which made it a staple) and it is always daytime. Instead, each assassination will be a big, bloody mess. Deduction for lacking subtlety.
  • Eagle Vision. By pressing triangle you can access this “skill,” which outlines friendly characters in green and enemies in red. It is so lame, the first time I used it was also my last. If you can’t tell who is an enemy (anyone with a sword) and who is not (everyone else), you have had a lobotomy. Oh, and apparently Eagle Vision also gives you the ability to see useless scribbles on a wall that no one else can (see complaint below).
  • Every single time you save a citizen from guards in this game, you have to listen to them thank you for 15 seconds while the game stalls. You save a lot of people, so this gets old very fast. The same goes for your informants. Sometimes they send you on timed missions (which suck too, by the way) and if you fail, the mission resets. When it resets, you have to listen to these dipshits babble the same 20 to 40 seconds, no matter what. You cannot cut them off and proceed with the game or mission. Wake up, developers. Did you even test this?
  • While in the lab at the end of the game, your assassin brethren are trying to free you (you can hear gunfire outside the lab). When the gunfire stops, the scientist guy tells you that the assassins’ rescue failed. I thought, at this point, the game would redeem itself, and that you would reveal to the scientist that, in fact, they had not. As you slowly drew the cord from the hooded sweatshirt you were wearing, you would walk behind him (he never seemed to care where you were), lower the cord over his neck and end his life, saying, “No, they didn’t fail. They had an inside man all along.” You would then smash the Animus with the fire extinguisher, grab the hard drive from the scientist’s desk, take the girl scientist hostage and escape. But no, you just go back into your bedroom and notice some dumb scribbling on the wall, using your newly acquired Eagle Vision (see complaint above) that is supposed to get us excited for the obvious sequel. Oh, and by the way, your assassin brethren must suck, they couldn’t even get in this stupid lab, which has huge windows overlooking the city. It can’t be that hard to infiltrate.

    By the end of the game, the Scientist has made it clear Abstergo is going to kill you, once they have the memories they want. You’d think this would be a good time to take him hostage and roll the dice on getting out. But no, you just go sit on your bed.
  • You cannot swim. You can survive 60 foot falls from rooftops, but you will die in 3 feet of water.
  • The lab. Again, you cannot interact in the lab, or the bedroom/bathroom attached to it. Unfortunately, you will spend a lot of time finding this out. Why do they give you this sandbox area only to make it off limits to interaction? If I want to smash a desktop computer, I should be able to smash it, dammit.
  • The Female Scientist. Near the end of the game, she starts telling you all kinds of secrets about your memories. Never mind there are 10 cameras recording her as she’s telling me this top secret information. By this point, Abstergo has made it clear they are willing to kill people over this information, so why not her? Not even Veronica Mars’ voice could get me to like her. Apparently when you get your Eagle Vision at the end of the game, she appears as an ally. I didn’t care enough to check this out, by that point. I guess that will be neat in the sequel.
  • Flags! There are hundreds of pennant-like flags that you can capture throughout the game world. There are Jerusalem flags, Damascus flags, Templar flags, King Richard Flags and many more! Why would you try to gather all one hundred King Richard flags or the hundreds of others? I have absolutely no idea. You really have no life if you waste your time doing this. The flags are worthless and unnecessary. You get othing for them. It’s a further sign that the designers of this game hate you just as much as they must hate themselves for taking the time to program the flags in. If you are dead set on avoiding any semblance of a social life and spending so much time on the PS3 that you could theoretically find all this game’s hundreds of worthless flags, might I suggest you download and play Pixeljunk Monsters from the PS3 store and waste your miserable life that way, instead? I did.

Gamespot gave this game a 9.0, a score to which it should not come close. Gee, I wonder if they’re in the pockets of the gaming companies? I understand most games on PS3 are still unfortunately lackluster, but you can’t let the AC designers off, just because they managed to create a beautiful-looking game. It’s almost worse, because they aspired to greatness and fell so short. At least PS3 Conan sucked and knew it sucked.

Quick Debriefing: Portal

It’s safe to say that Portal is the first game whose ending credits prompted me to play it. I first saw the YouTube video of “Still Alive” back in November, and I’ve had the song stuck in my head ever since — even though, for most of the time, I’ve had no idea who Aperture Science and Black Mesa are. (Note: You may not want to watch the video if you haven’t played Portal and don’t want to be spoiled. Seeing it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the game, however.)

The minute, the very second, that The Orange Box was released for the PS3, I immediately waited a few months until someone I knew had finished it and could lend me a copy. (Thanks, Tom!)

After weeks of reading about it in reviews and on forums, the consensus seemed to be that Portal is fantastic for a short, throw-in of a game. Turns out, Portal is fantastic, period. I’d argue that it’s worth a full 60 bucks on its own, and now I feel a little guilty for not buying it.

Though I’d spoiled the ending for myself, and I’d skimmed posts about Portal on the web, I’d managed to avoid much specific information about the game, itself. In case you’re late to the party, like I was, I won’t spoil any serious plot or gameplay details here.

I’ll just say that it’s a primarily a puzzle game, using first person shooter mechanics. There are some action sequences, in which your timing and aim will need to be pretty precise, but even a slug like me was able to accomplish everything. The script is hilarious. And the in-game music, though sparse, does a great job of adding to the atmosphere.

The game excels at teaching you how to play it as you go through its 19 tests. Because it’s challenging, but never feels frustrating or impossible, you feel smarter as you figure out the keys to solving each successive level.

The lying sack of crap reviewers at IGN bragged that they finished the game in about 90 minutes their first time through. What insecure assholes. I’d guess it takes most players — at least ones who come in knowing very little about the game and who like to explore and experiment a little — somewhere between three and six hours.

However long it takes you, the game is short. And that’s fine with me. I’ll take five hours of unforgettable near-perfection over 20 to 40 hours of merely good-to-great gameplay, every time. Plus, it helps clear out my to-play queue a little more quickly. That’s handy, especially when I’ve got about a half-dozen games in the hopper. Which is always.

Concert Recap: Distant Worlds — Music From Final Fantasy

Saturday night, Kathy and I attended the Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy concert in Chicago. A couple years back, we had nosebleed seats to the Dear Friends tour, and we loved it. This time, Kathy went online the minute seats went on sale, and she got a pair of choice seats as a birthday present for me.

Rosemont Theater

Before the show, we walked around, checking out the crowd. It was pretty much what you’d expect from a concert celebrating Japanese RPG music: lots of guys, many with some combination of ponytails, bad facial hair, and/or trenchcoats; white guys with Asian girlfriends; white girls with chopsticks in their hair; and tons of attendees wearing glasses (including Kathy and me). There were plenty of cute, young couples dressed up for date night, making it a kind of homecoming for nerds. All in all, my kind of people.

And of course, there was cosplay. One girl in particular did a spectacular job emulating FFVIII’s Sorceress Edea, and it seemed people were taking pictures of her from the minute she arrived until the show started.

Hot Edea

I was in the aisle seat of our section’s front row. Just before the show began, a door opened to our right, and in walked Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, wearing a drapey black outfit and some flip-flop sandals (with socks). He had a couple toadies with him, each wearing a dark, fitted suit. Kathy figured they were probably dressed up as Turks.

Turks 182

The show itself was a blast. Starting things off with FFVII’s “Opening — Bombing Mission,” tour conductor Arnie Roth guided the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra through songs from each of the Final Fantasy games Uematsu has scored. Roth, a confessed fan of the series and its music, has been arranging and conducting Final Fantasy concerts for several years now, and he’s got the process down to a science. The performances were spot-on, and the pacing was perfect.

Overhead, three video screens displayed scenes from the various games. In one sequence, a battle scenario from FFVIII aired, as the orchestra played “Don’t Be Afraid,” the battle theme from that game. Another video featured a montage of chocobo footage, set to a swing version of the chocobo theme.

One of the best parts of these Final Fantasy concerts is the audience’s reaction. The shows are unlike any other symphony orchestra I’ve seen, in that the audience claps, cheers, and laughs at the beginning and end of every song–sometimes even during, when appropriate. This all cracks up members of the orchestra, who often turn to each other and laugh when the response is especially raucous.

The only time I was a little disappointed in the crowd was just prior to the performance of FFXI’s “Memoro de la Stono — Distant Worlds.” Before the song began, an attractive young soprano, who was set to solo, stepped to the front of the stage. Of course, some asshole had to wolf-whistle, and some other assholes had to laugh. Not a lot of people joined in, but it was enough to make things uncomfortable for a moment there. I apologize, Miss Soprano, on behalf of all of us.

For the most part, the setlist was an easy-to-predict greatest hits compilation, comprising classics that have been recorded and played live plenty of times before, like “Theme of Love” (IV), “Dear Friends” (V) “Aerith’s Theme” (VII), “Liberi Fatali” (VIII), “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” (IX), “To Zanarkand” (X), a medley of songs from the first three games, and “Main Theme from Final Fantasy.” The first encore was “Terra’s Theme,” from FFVI. And there was no way the audience would have allowed the orchestra to get away without playing the closing number, FFVII’s “One-Winged Angel.”

The setlist also contained a couple of surprises, both pleasant ones.

Though “Fisherman’s Horizon” is one of my favorite songs from FFVIII, I never would have predicted it to make the cut for this tour. It’s not an essential theme for one of the series’ major characters or events. It’s just the background music for one of the towns you visit, midway through the game. That said, it’s damn good background music. The arrangement was a little bit different from the version on the Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinisec CD, but it sounded great.

The second surprise of the evening was the last song before the encore: FFVI’s “Opera — Maria and Draco.” Three vocalists sang (and acted out) their parts with hilariously exaggerated earnestness, as Super Nintendo graphics from the original scene played overhead. It was the first time I’d ever heard the piece sung by actual humans. Previously, I’d only experienced the in-game version:

For me, the night’s highlight was “Love Grows,” the instrumental version of FFVIII’s popular vocal theme, “Eyes On Me.” In contrast with “Fisherman’s Horizon,” this arrangement was pretty much identical to the Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec version.

In many ways, Final Fantasy VIII is the worst of the post-Nintendo FF titles. Its gameplay is a pain, the plot twist is idiotic, and the main character is a bit of a douche throughout the first half. And yet, I adore the game. I’m a sucker for the love story, and the opening and closing movies still give me chills.

The live performance of “Love Grows” was excellent, particularly the piano roll, which conductor Roth described as “difficult, like playing Liszt.” Combined with the video–which featured footage from the game’s ending and other key moments–the performance really got to me. Afterward, I punched the guy sitting behind me, just to feel like a man, again. It felt good.

Rapid Review: Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction

Rapid Review (Under 1000 words or your pizza is free!)

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction for Playstation 3

Rating: 8,953 out of 10,003

Likey: Pretty Colors, Cute Lombax, Big Guns and Many Weapons Make Big Booms! Rail slides remind me of my roller-blading days in the late 80s. Pirate outfits!

No Likey: Loading the game the first time is a pain in the ass! Repetitive marble-maze puzzles (you’ll see) utilizing the Sixaxis controls. Continue Points when you die can be a bit far back.

I haven’t played the previous Ratchet and Clanks, so if you’re an old hand at the series and some of the shit I say is old news to you, well, too bad.

First off, when I loaded the game into my PS3 it gave me an error reading saying “You require 419 MBs of space to load this game, please remove programs from your hard drive and reboot.” Ummmm, I have like 70 MBs of free space. So I did a search on the internets about this problem and voila, it came up on the PS3 forum. It was an easy but annoying fix. You had to download a 500MBish game Demo or remove one from your drive (I had no demos, so I had to download one).

Apparently due to the various GB levels of PS3 drives, if you had a PS3 over 20 GBs, the game would always read the drive as being full. Somehow the download tricked it back into proper reality. This whole experience reminded me of PC performance issues and why people buy consoles–because you are supposed to pop a game in and play the damn thing without a hitch. But gone are those days I guess. It took about 20 minutes for my demo to download, which was lame too. Oh well. Now I have a Devil May Cry 4 demo out of this.

As to the game, it’s got a lot of elements of Sonic, Super Mario Bros., Star Fox (Old Skool!) and various shooters. The humorous storyline revolves around an inept galactic emperor whose primary objective is eradicating the Lombax species, of which you, playing as the adorable but deadly Ratchet, are the last known survivor.

You’ve also got a bumbling, egotistical, tights-clad (looks like the Tick) boss, Captain Qwark, who’s inane egoism adds to your troubles.

It’s a fast-paced, intuitive shooter with brief (sometimes repetitive and annoying) problem solving skills, a few of which utilize the dumb Sixaxis controls. This is the second game out of two I’ve played (grenades in Uncharted) where I find the Sixaxis unwieldy. Perhaps it will grow on me over time, or PS3 will simply drop its poor attempt at Wii-ness. The learning curve is pretty simple, just make sure you learn to strafe early and often, and manage your glides and jumps. Oh, and smash everything with your wrench to obtain goodies, upgrades, and ammo.

The amount of weapons available in this game is immense. From the mundane—your trusty wrench (smash!), flame throwers, rocket launchers, nuclear hand grenades to the bizarre, like the Hive something or other, where you toss a nano gadget out onto the floor and it creates a “hive” of nano bees that attack multiple opponents over a short time.

Plus, you have offensive gadgets that turns baddies into harmless penguins. Or toss up the Disconator (a disco ball) and your enemies can’t help but start dancing while you blast them away.

The game has a great sense of humor here and interesting enough storyline. The graphics and colors are simply gorgeous. And the designers throw a lot of enemies at you at once. The game dares the PS3 console to glitch and slow down the onscreen activity with all that action, but it never does. It’s a fine showing of what the system can handle.

To sum it up, it’s fast-paced and simple enough (once you figure out which weapons work best on what). If you can’t get through it without a walkthrough, you probably don’t have the brains to successfully download the game (per my first paragraph instructions) in the first place. I didn’t time my gameplay but think I clocked in at about 12 to 14 hours.

Kudos to Insomniac Studios for masking the ultra-violence of this game under a cloak of cute cuddliness that is the main characters, the adorable Ratchet and his better-than-Buck Rogers’-Twiki partner, Clank. Blowing things up never felt so innocuous.

It’s a pretty easy game, which is fine by me. I never had much use for Devil May Cry 3-type difficulty; those kind of games remind me of trying to play golf (I hate and suck at golf).

As a gamer with limited time on my hands, I gotta say, I’m appreciating these shorter games on PS3.

Gee Buck!