My Ten Favorite Video Games

Here it is, ladies, gents, and everyone in between. My Top Ten! I had a hard enough time choosing ten games to name above all the others that I’ve played, so I did not give them set rankings. Games, like all other art mediums, cannot always be fairly compared to each other due to their stark differences. A critic worth their salt isn’t going to rate an oil painting with the same criteria as an ice sculpture. Therefore, I surely can’t say an action game is better than a puzzle game because the bases for comparison are vastly different, except for the basic fun and immersion factors. What this means for my list is that I tried to get a comprehensive collection from different genres. I could easily (and maybe later do) a 10 favorite RPGs list because that is the genre I play the most of. But I think a more varied list appreciating other game genres is appropriate and more reflective of my gaming experiences. So, without further adieu…

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Super Mario Brothers 2

I love me some old school Mario games, and none so much as this title. It’s a Doki Doki Panic revamp, making it a black sheep in the Mario-verse, but I love it. Whenever I get a hankering to play an old Mario title, it’s almost always SMB2. You get to play as Princess Toadstool, and not the joke Princess Peach in Super Princess Peach who makes the feminazi in me rage. No, Princess Toadstool gets down and dirty with the boys in this game, throwing enemies around and kicking butt without a stupid parasol and PMS freakouts. Oh, and did I mention she can hover? If you cheat with a Game Genie (and oh, cheat I did), you can enter a code which makes her fly for entire levels if you so desire. Ideally, you would choose the most suitable character for each level I guess. But screw that, I only play as Princess!

After all these years, I can still do many levels with my eyes closed (like that level in world 4 where all the Beezos are flying at you, and if you don’t want to get hit you need to do a well executed series of jumps, ducks, and ducking while jumping), and I still remember where all the warp “pots” are. I liked not being on a timer in this game. It gives the player more time to explore and learn the areas. I mean, who didn’t try digging up every single square of sand? Or seeing how long they could bait the Phanto with a key before getting hit? As quirky as the enemy designs were, for the most part I think they’re pretty cool and unique.

I will also never forget my reaction when the Eagle-mouth-doorway-thingy dislodged itself and started trying to attack me! I almost shat myself. It was such a great moment, I only have one other old school game moment that compares, so I guess I’ll do that game next.

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Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

I like my old school 2D Link adventures. Another black sheep I guess, since it’s pretty much an alternate reality experience with some Super Mario nods thrown in. Its charming in a strange way and a nice change in pace from saving Zelda, Hyrule, and collecting triforce pieces. Instead, Link is stranded on Koholint Island and must traverse 8 dungeons and collect special instruments to escape (Play 8 magical instruments to awaken the Wind Fish? Huh?). How does he know this? A wise owl told him, of course.

So about that ‘young me almost shat myself experience.’ I may have shop lifted, say, a couple of times, from that shopkeeper in the starting town. I don’t suggest you do it. If you do, he KILLS YOU with a LASER next time you go in! Second grade me freaked out and did not play this game again for months. Literally. I could not believe it. What a morality lesson! It didn’t stop me from stealing in real life, but hey, actual WalMart cashiers don’t come at you with laser beam guns. I haven’t tried shoplifting in a Zelda game since, so I don’t know if you get capital punishment for this crime or not in other entries.

Upgrading the wallet, which I always thought was kinda dumb, is absent from this game. I like the weapon and special item selections as well. Collecting seashells was cool and I wanted to get every single one. I definitely ran that poor shovel into the ground. Running into a tree could make rupees or a seashell come out… Oh boy. I definitely ran into every tree too. And, if you poke the sword into a wall and hear a hollow “tink,” then it’ll open up a passageway if you drop a bomb in front of it. I definitely poked every wall possible, too. Thinking back on it, I definitely got my mileage out of that poor Game Boy.

In order to navigate the final dungeon (I.E.- tunnels in the wind fish’s egg) you first needed to use the magnifying glass on the mysterious book in the village’s library that you couldn’t read before. It reveals a series of arrows. So if you get all the way to the final dungeon you’re screwed if you didn’t look at the book and write down the arrows or commit them to memory. I remember carrying around a little slip of paper in my Game Boy travel case with the directional sequence written on it for months. Ah, good times.

If you like the old 2D LoZ games but haven’t played this one, you absolutely need to. It is a very strong entry in the series and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it was on a portable system. To my knowledge, it has been released on Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and you can now download it onto a 3DS via the Nintendo EStore!

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Mega Man VI

I just had to put a Mega Man game on here, and VI is the entry that stole a lot of my childhood (and sanity) from me. Anyone who has played a NES Mega Man title knows the frustrating (and satisfying) feeling of trudging through one of these games. It really can be equated to self-induced torture sometimes. The memorization (which takes lots of repetition for someone like me) and flawless execution required to master some of the levels and bosses in these games is just crazy. And NOTHING matches the feeling of being this close to killing a robot master before dying and having no more lives left. On the plus side, no one will make fun of you for jumping up off the couch and doing a victory dance after finally killing your first Robot Master.

Everything about Megaman VI makes it tower over the other NES entries for me. The levels, the bosses, the music, the weapons, the awesome RUSH goodies. I also love all things Ancient Greek and Greek Mythology. Therefore, Centaur Man is the man. I’m a total dork and still listen to the soundtrack to this game. None of the other Mega Man games can say they’ve earned that level of nostalgia. MMVI is the basis of comparison for all other Mega Man games. You’ll quite often hear me say “That reminds me of such-and-such from VI.” I know I don’t make much sense, since Mega Man VI came after I-V and was criticized as being redundant and lacking originality (a robot master tournament with robots programmed to take over the world? Sounds original to me in a laughable sort of way). I find that criticism a moot point because ALL the Mega Man games up to that point were just rehashing the first game. They all have themed stages with a boss, who, upon defeat, gives up a new weapon that = KILL MODE to a certain boss,  and have final stages you need to traverse after killing all the robot masters. They all have ridiculous excuses for story lines and bosses. And that’s how it should be.

Thanks to the internet and a host of dedicated gamers, replaying Mega Man oldies is less frustrating than the good old days. Robot Master weakness charts are all over the internet. Outside of memorizing frustrating one-hit kills in levels and Robot Master fighting patterns (jump, jump, JUMP ON TOP OF MEGA MAN) the rest of your time is spent playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” trying to figure out what each boss’ weakness is. Without the trial and error, you can usually make a chump out of a boss on the first or second attempt… And usually by then you’ll have the level committed to memory like the back of your hand. I realize a lot of gamers would probably pick Megaman II over this one, but it just doesn’t stick with me like VI does. It is harder, not more fun. Besides, charging the Mega Buster is where it’s at.

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Dance Dance Revolution: Max 2

Go on, laugh it up.  Before you totally throw my credibility out the window, let me clarify something here. On my hidden Top Ten agenda, I asked myself “How many times have I or would I replay this game?” If a game can get me to keep coming back for more, it definitely has to be one of my personal favorites. Based on that criteria alone, DDR certainly makes the cut. I have been playing DDR games on and off for over a decade, and I STILL have not mastered every song. I’d say that earns it a metric ton of replayability points. DDR was innovative and creative for its time. And, say what you will about the series, these games got lazy gamers like me off of our arses and sweating like pigs.

The DDR games have changed a little over the years, though the core game play remains the same: Step on the arrows when they reach the top of the screen. Trust me, the execution is more difficult than the concept alludes. However, each entry in the series has different game modes in which you unlock more songs, play modes, or background dancer designs/outfits. I was awfully let down with the PS3 Dance Dance Revolution when I saw it did not have the background dancers. Sure they were silly, but I loved watching Naoki get down with his bad self. There was NO way I was gonna put an EyeCam on top of my TV and stare at my gross, sweaty self. That’s such a teeny bopper “I’m skinny and popular and I’m gonna dance to Britney Spears” marketing gimmick. The DDR games have had to start selling themselves to the mainstream, but I try not to let it bother me too much. I understand they need to sell a certain number of copies to justify making more. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the popular American songs are also the easiest and therefore appealing more to the casual DDR player. But as long as they still include my J-pop and trance beats I shall remain satiated.

I chose Max 2 because it has my favorite song selection (aside from missing “Sakura”), the workout mode works exactly like it should (don’t know why they changed it in the PS3 DDR) and it has some of the most whacked-out fluctuating background designs ever. When I got good enough at “Drifting Away” to start paying attention to what was going on in the background I definitely did a triple-take. It’s trippy, to say the least.

Getting started in the DDR-verse is cheaper than ever nowadays. If you love video games, dance music, and don’t want to go to the gym or track where other people can SEE you trying to sweat off some pounds, buy a copy of the game and a dance pad so you can shake your money maker in the privacy of your own home without a monthly subscription!

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Dead Island

I’ve always loved killing zombies. In the last couple of years I’ve opened up to open exploration games as well. When I explain Dead Island to someone, it is simple: Killing zombies meets open-world exploration RPG, what’s not to love? And there is very little to not love in this game. The developers were jerks and threw in sequences where you have to kill post-apocalyptic gangster opportunists (and I would definitely rank these sections as the game’s weak points) but other than that, and some minor glitches I am hoping will be absent from the sequel, I really have few faults to find with this game. It is absolutely freakin’ awesome. I already wrote a lengthy blog post praising this game, so I won’t bore you with what I’ve already said. All I have to add is that April 23 cannot come soon enough.

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God of War

As I mentioned in my Mega Man VI blurb, I love all things Ancient Greek/Greek Mythology. I also happen to thoroughly enjoy action games and gratuitous violence. The God of War series fits the formula to be considered in my top ten games, and is a shining example of great console exclusives. I have played every God of War release, and am eagerly anticipating the next entry in the series. I’ve partaken in the multiplayer beta for Ascension, which I was skeptical about at first. After spending a couple of nights in the Hercules forum I can say they have done a great job incorporating the GoW battle system and atmosphere in a multiplayer setting.

In these games you play as Kratos, my favorite anti-hero. He is a former Spartan soldier who strives to get revenge on Ares, and later, all of Mount Olympus, and he doesn’t care what he has to do or who he has to kill to achieve his goal. Really, more video games need characters like this. After killing your first handful of innocent civilians you’ll be asking yourself, “Wait, am I the good guy here?” If memory serves, you actually receive red orbs (ability/weapon upgrade currency) for killing them in certain sections.

The pacing in GoW is practically perfect. I don’t like it when games dump fifty abilities on you at the beginning of the game and expect you to be able to learn and execute all of them at once. Nor do I appreciate feeling powerless the entire game, either. In GoW, you will gradually upgrade your magic and life bars via items found in treasure chests (Phoenix Feathers and Gorgon Eyes, respectively) and upgrade your weapons to unlock new abilities for them by opening chests and doing lots of killing! The weapon upgrades make sense and the abilities are usually easy enough to pull off at will. Extra skill is needed for timed parrying, blocking, dodging and counters. Kratos’ chain blades are also one of the coolest weapons ever. Even basic attacks manage to look stylish, and it cuts down on boring running over to the enemy time. There are other weapons besides the chain blades, but they’re hardly worth using until they get significantly beefed up in GoW3.

For all my praising of this series, I will admit I’m not crazy about the super arbitrary puzzles, especially in the first game. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself asking the television, “Who the heck would think to do that?” because I definitely did a couple of times. I also believe, in terms of storyline, the series has run its course. GoW3 was supposed to be the end (and that was after two PSP entries were tacked on) and now there is a new title, Ascension slated for release on March 12. I can’t help but wonder what’s the point… besides milking more money out of consumers, anyway.

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Bayonetta

It was a toss-up between this and Lollipop Chainsaw, but Bayonetta won out due to the superior in-depth battle mechanics and wealth of unlockable goodies that’ll certainly keep gamers coming back for more. Plus, I honestly think Bayonetta paved the way for LC. Aside from having a female protagonist, sexually-laden humor and lots of stylized action sequences, they’re very different so check them both out! While LC deals with a high school girl killing zombies, Bayonetta is, well, a witch who kills angels.

If you like the stylized demon killing in Devil May Cry, you’ll be impressed with the fighting. The games share the same director, Hideki Kamiya, and it shows. But while Dante tries being edgy and hot with his one-liners and falls short, Bayonetta picks up his slack. I laughed out loud all throughout playing this game. The ridiculousness is funny and over the top. If you take all your games with uber seriousness, this gem wasn’t meant for you. I was disappointed near the end when the writers started trying to take themselves seriously. It started loosing credibility to me at that point. The ‘plot’ got ridiculous and didn’t make much sense to me. Hopefully Bayonetta 2 will ride on all the great aspects of the first game: goofy characters, outlandish and fast-paced action, raunchy humor, and awesome enemy designs and take the whole package to the next level.

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Parasite Eve

Reading is another one of my hobbies. When I discovered Squaresoft developed a video game based on an award winning Japanese sci-fi novel, I had to check it out. And, as an added bonus, the main character is a woman– a common theme in my top ten list, you’ll notice before I’m done. If my memory serves, Parasite Eve may even be the first mature-rated game I ever played, but I can’t say for sure. I purchased it at GameStop when I was in high school… way back before they figured out mature movies and video games made us all violent, twisted individuals.

I have to say I really like what Squaresoft did with it. Translating books directly into video games wasn’t as common as it is nowadays and Squaresoft totally pulled it off. The game managed to hold onto the B-movie sci-fi atmosphere while incorporating role-playing and survival game elements. The ongoing tension between the main character, Aya Brea, and the antagonist “Eve,” totally had me reeled in until the game finally explained the precarious bond between them. The “take me seriously” dialogue still sings to my quirky sci-fi loving side. The music is catchy and I still listen to the soundtrack from time to time.

The sexuality rating is largely credited to the “naked” (though she doesn’t have any nipples) and pregnant Eve you fight near the end of the game in an awesome showdown located at the fallen Statue of Liberty. Then, spoilers be damned, you get license to kill her baby. Dead Space and Dante’s Inferno have crossed that bar as well, but PE was definitely my first mutant-baby destroying experience. The Ultimate Being, Eve’s artificially inseminated offspring, is a great example of what a final boss fight should be like in a RPG. He basically morphs… and morphs… and morphs… and morphs again… and even after you dish out a world of pain, he can still one-hit-kill you in the final chase sequence. It’ll have you bashing your head against the wall if you take a wrong turn when the pile of green slime is coming after you, but it is so worth it.

I also love Parasite Eve because it is a solid, rewarding RPG experience that can be completed in less than ten hours. I don’t have all the gaming time I used to have, so this is a great bonus. Plus, if you’re interested in devoting the time, there’s a New Game+ mode so you can keep beefing up your choice gun and armor and tackle the 99 story Chrysler Tower–and earn yourself an alternate boss fight and ending to boot!

In terms of the Parasite Eve fandom, I’ve read the English translation of the novel, watched the subtitled version of the Japanese movie, and played the games. Don’t even waste your time with Parasite Eve 2 and 3. Like a lot of sequels I have gripes with, they tried turning the series into something it wasn’t meant to be. First with PE2 it was trying too hard to be Resident Evil. Then with PE3 it was trying too hard to be, I don’t even know, a fast-paced action game. Or just a bad game, really.

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Xenosaga III: Also Spoke Zarathustra

I’m still a little sore that the Xenosaga series got slashed from the projected five installments down to three. I blame Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose, for turning off the core fan base with the absolutely terrible battle system. Which is a pity, because Xenosaga’s strength has always been the story, and Episode II did well in that regard… It was just painful getting from point A to point B.

I’ll admit, the Xeno series isn’t for everyone. The first game in the trilogy, Der Wille Zur Macht, was criticized for the overly generous portions of exposition. Gamers like myself, who played the predecessor Xenogears, knew what we were getting ourselves in for though. For those of you who don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into, try imagining the content of, say, a science fiction fantasy book series that’s about a dozen novels long, each book averaging 700 pages. These books would be overflowing with vast environments, well-written and believable characters. And the plot would be something like showcasing humanity’s struggle to survive alongside cyborgs, realians and clones, all trying to fight off an ‘alien’ threat killing them from another plane of existence.  And none of that includes the even more complicated ‘grander scheme’ going on as well. Throw all of that into a turn-based RPG and you might have a better idea of what Xenosaga is all about.

I really cannot begin to explain the epicness that is the Xenosaga plot. All I can say is that, at times, it seems like you need advanced degrees in religion and philosophy to truly appreciate what these games are doing to your mind. The episode titles are in German, due to heavy borrowing from the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (obviously). There is even a character named Wilhelm in the series, who, well, certainly earns his namesake.

I chose Also Sprach Zarathustra because I found it a harmonious blend of the previous installments. The battle system took the best elements of the first two and created its own beast. Episode III starts off confusing due to the writers trying to wrap up plot points in games cut from production (Namco released a flash video with original scores and dialogue prepared for the cut games in Japanese, and there is a fansub available online titled “The Missing Years,” for anyone interested…) but once it picks up you won’t regret all the time you invested in the series. By the end of Xenogears and the Xenosaga trilogy, the writers had me seriously contemplating pretty much every mystery of the human experience: death, love, religion, sexuality, morality, humanity…. There really are few video games or movies or television shows that I can say the same for. Aside from my last Top Ten entry, this is the only video game that had me bawling once everything was said and done.

Oh, and the musical score is… Wow. The music in all the Xeno games rank high with me, but the soundtrack in Episode III is remarkable.  Yuki Kajiura truly outdid herself with this one.

If I’ve peaked your interest, you can download Xenogears on the Playstation Network for around $10, I believe. It is the Playstation game that inspired the Xenosaga trilogy, and if you like it, you should definitely continue on in the adventure. I’m hard pressed to recommend Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose, because the gameplay is tedious and boring. The only thing that got me through were the characters and story: both of which you can read about in Episode III thanks to the Xeno-bible the developers were kind enough to throw in there. Personally, I’m thinking about starting an online petition to get them to make an episode 2.5 so we get to see everything we missed!

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Final Fantasy X

I could have loaded this post with mostly Final Fantasy games, but hundreds of better reviewers have already written everything there is to write about the series. Not to mention that would be pretty boring and best saved for a “Favorite RPGs” post. After a lot of soul-searching I’ve decided upon this pinnacle in the Final Fantasy franchise. In my opinion, FF games rate as either “Before FFX” or “After FFX.” The “Before” games represent the best JRPGs have ever had to offer. “The After,” well, let’s just say something in the magical formula has been missing for quite some time. Final Fantasy X puts the “Final” in Final Fantasy for me.

Final Fantasy X was released when I was in high school. I hadn’t yet saved up the money to buy a PS2, so one of my friends let me borrow his PS2, copy of FFX, and a memory card. I was absolutely hooked. I don’t think my family saw me for two weeks. If I wasn’t at school or work, I was in front of the small TV in my room playing. Completely consumed, I raced through the game because I needed to know what happened next. And when the grand finale came, I cried like a baby; not only because the ending was everything a RPG should have, but because my life now felt empty. I remember collecting myself and aimlessly wandering around the house afterward, unsure of what to do with myself. The empty feeling of returning to reality after completing an exceptional video game or finishing an epic fantasy series always leaves an empty pit in my stomach and tightness in my chest. Final Fantasy X does it to me every time, no matter how often I play it.

It is hard to find many faults in this game. Not only does it feature excellently written characters and dialogue (for the most part), it has an innovative battle system, unique character customization, and a great storyline. Freely swapping characters in and out of battle whenever I want? Yessir! I used to make sure everyone performed an action during each fight to ensure they leveled up equally. It changed everything for me. Turn-based RPGs really should have picked up on it. Staple Fantasy-RPG classes are here as well: White Mage, Thief, Black Mage, etc., but if you put in enough time you can make any character good at anything. Want Auron to pick up the pace? Take him for a trip down Riku’s sphere grid path. Need a backup healer? Throw Lulu down Yuna’s path so she’ll learn some White Magic and get an even higher magic stat!

Final Fantasy X also has Blitzball. Blitzball is the only mini-game (‘mini’ is only an expression at this point) that I fell in love with. FFVII had the Gold Saucer, which I only went back to for the unlockables. FFVIII had Triple Triad (again, only played for the goodies) and FFIX had Tetra Master, which was pointless. Blitzball was rewarding, but it was also FUN. I found myself turning on my PS2 only to play Blitzball. And never did I complain about spending four hours playing just to get a certain item. It was also as customizable as your characters.

Aside from Xenosaga, I don’t think any games match up to Final Fantasy X‘s storyline in my eyes. While I appreciate Kefka (and I’ve been saying it’s about time for another megalomaniac villain), Sephiroth, and FFVIII‘s sorceresses, none of their “save the world from this villain” plots spoke to me like in FFX. In FFX, you are disillusioned throughout most of the game, believing as the rest of Spira believes. Mankind’s punishment is Sin, and the only brief restitution comes in 10 year periods known as “The Calm” after a summoner sacrifices their life for the greater good. However, you eventually learn that it is all an impressively constructed lie. As it turns out, “Sin” itself isn’t the true enemy, ‘god’ is, and the entire system was developed as a means of controlling the populace through false hope and lies– Hey, whaddya know? I just summarized my opinion on organized religion.

In all seriousness, experiencing this turn of events and the ensuing heartbreak between Yuna (who lost her father to said falsehoods and had devoted her entire life to the cause and was prepared to become a martyr for it) and Tidus (we won’t get into his entire story right now) really tied the knot for me and no other Final Fantasy tale quite matches it. It was a close call between this and Final Fantasy VII, but saving mankind from the shackles of their religion won out over saving the world from a demented biological experiment baby with mommy issues in the end. Saving ‘the world’ is done all the time, it was nice doing something different for a change.

And there you have it everyone, let the trolling wars begin! (Heyyy… look at all the great PS2 exclusives in this list~)

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Retro Review: Breath of Fire 2

Breath of FIre 2

A couple of months ago, my gaming partner and I decided to pick up Breath of Fire 2. We played Breath of Fire 3, a completely amazing RPG, and made the mistake of thinking that its predecessor would be, I don’t know… enjoyable? Or at the very least a good, nostalgic SNES RPG romp.

Well, it’s not. BoF2 is not fun. Nor is it hardly tolerable. In order to try and make sense of how utterly terrible it is, try conceptualizing a JRPG lovechild between a self-mutilating masochist who can’t figure out which direction to slice their wrist and a 15-year old who thinks they know how to write but can’t even get a positive review on fanfiction.net.

We almost rage quit. Multiple times. This game is so terrible, even my gaming partner who has impressive fortitude and patience when it comes to video games had to consign to putting the classic controller down and taking deep, healing breaths.  Instead of quitting (because that would permanently injure our gamer pride) we took therapy breaks with Lollipop Chainsaw and movies.  There are so many flaws (both technically and conceptually), that it is hard to believe BoF2 even made it through any sort of review process before getting put on the market. At times I felt like the developers wanted me to break my face with the controller and damn them to an eternity of  anal penetration with cumbersome, pointy objects. I have a hard time thinking clearly through my rage when it comes to BoF2. I think the best way to go about this opinion piece is to list everything that makes this game the worst RPG I’ve ever forced myself to play.

1.) CONSTANT PARTY RAPING- When I use the term “party raping,” I mean instances when you have, say, 7 characters to choose from but the game keeps forcing certain party members down your throat. In most RPGs, it happens due to plot purposes. Final Fantasy XIII would be a recent example of having your party forcibly shuffled around for 50-75% of the game because of what is going on with the story. It is to be expected once in a while in a lot of these types of games. Sometimes you are strong-armed into playing one character solo. Again, it is common. BoF2 does this, but does it dishonestly and stupidly.

In terms of plot related party raping (and yes, there are other methods I’ll cover in my next complaint) the two most annoying occurrences were doing solo boss fights with Sten and, later on, Nina. As Sten, you have to go to his hometown and rescue the other party members who end up getting captured. He was immediately pit against a boss who got two turns to his one. Well actually, the bosses’ one turn=two actions, so really, four attacks to Sten’s one attack.  We hadn’t used Sten unless forced to at that point (he’s a monkey with boring abilities and the way he joined the party was just… tacky), so he was a little under-geared and under-leveled. You’d think common sense would dictate that, hey, if they’re going to force a solo boss fight upon a character the player may not have been using up to that point, they’d give the player access to either the other party’s inventory or an equipment store to buy upgrades, right?

Well, such was not the case. You also can’t leave the town. All you get is access to a two floor dungeon with a couple marginal equipment upgrades. And the fights in the dungeon were also a much higher difficultly than they should have been! One lonely monkey vs. a group of three mobs that enjoy “Slamming” him for more hit points than he even has before getting a turn= a very frustrating two hours trying to level up to kill the boss.  And that’s not all! Let’s make him traverse a dungeon all on his own after the boss fight with no heal spell or reliable way to run from even more random fights that can knock you out before you can say “This is f***ing BS!” And I don’t want to hear “Just run away,” because it doesn’t work, or “Use a ‘Smoke’ item,” because if it does decrease the encounter rate, it isn’t by a significant amount.

Something similar happens later on in the game when you have to use Nina, a mage, solo. Her boss fight was laughable after the stupid dungeon they make her go through by herself. We died, repeatedly, and kept popping back up where the rest of the party were offering to help, but just stood there, watching Nina come in and out after every death. It’s not like it would’ve made sense to put enemies with noticeable magic weaknesses in a dungeon when you are ONLY controlling a mage. Yeah, magic is all-around crappy in this game. Another gripe of mine.

I’d prefer the game MAKE me use characters, even if I have no interest in them,  than let me think I actually could choose how to set up my party and punish me for not having the foresight to swap crappy characters in and out to soak up experience (not that there’s a decent way to do so). God forbid they give non-active party members partial experience, or scale the solo boss fights dependent on your level, or supply you with a reliable way to buff the character up before throwing them into their obnoxious solo endeavors.

2.) CONSTANT WORLD MAP BACKTRACKING- The yokel who decided walking back and forth across the world map three dozen times before giving the player access to a Warp spell and without even updating the random encounters needs some lengthy doses of Chinese water torture. I’ll come clean here: one of my RPG pet peeves is being forced to walk by foot across already-explored territory while entering random encounters that offer trivial rewards. BORING! BoF2 took this, coincided it with my party raping frustrations, and showed me a whole new level of rage.

Every character has a different ability they can perform on the world map. You must put that person in the lead, hit the corresponding button, and something different will happen depending on who you’re controlling. In order to access certain areas on the world map, you must have certain people in the party to proceed. See where I’m going with this? So, say you hate Jean because you think he is an insufferable tool and is completely ineffective in battle (which isn’t too far from the truth) but you have to keep letting him in your party because, being a frog and all, he is the only one who can swim to certain spots. Now imagine you spent 15 minutes crossing the world map to get where you wanted to go only to find out you need to turn back around and change your party lineup because you have to put Jean in your party. And then, assuming you go back to the nearest dragon statue to change your party (Dragon statues are the only way to swap active characters and with the ridiculous amount of time spent changing party members there really should have been more of them) and get back on track, you make five more minutes of progress only to find out you need a different party member! But hey, by now Jean will be level 14 and know Warp, so he won’t be quite so useless until you get Bleu. This is what I mean by not being honest about forcing party members down your throat. You don’t even get the decency of a suggestion that it might be a good idea to put so-and-so in the party for the next plot area most of the time.

Just when I thought this was all going to be alleviated once we were able to fly, the game spit in my face again. In order to fly across the world map, you still have to have a certain party member present. Which means, even when finding good item/experience grinding locations, you’re not necessarily going to have the ideal party you want leveling up. And there is no dragon statue to be found on these isolated grinding islands. Tell me how that makes any sense at all.

These frustrations could have easily been avoided if the game would just let you change party members from the main menu. Backtracking would also be less painful if you could run away from fights. The “Run” option uses everyone’s turn and doesn’t like to work most of the time. Even when you are level 25 and trying to escape level 1 Slimes. This is not an exaggeration. I cannot fathom why there is NO character with an escape ability, or a consumable item. Even if it wasn’t 100% I’d take it, because at least the other characters could whittle away at the enemy’s HP. As it stands, you’ll fail running away from a pointless fight three times, then give up and kill the enemy anyway because it seems to be less time consuming. And if you’re fighting a higher level enemy and your life depends on it, don’t depend on getting away alive. You will die and wish you could kill the stupid characters in real life because they “Won’t Run” from fights they can’t win.

So yeah, the developers managed to combine three of my major peeves into one hellish experience:  Constant party raping while walking back and forth across the world map fifty times and fighting the same level 1 slimes over and over again.

3.) BAD TRANSLATIONS- Don’t get me wrong, I like quirky and funny dialogue gaffes as much as the next JRPG player. They tend to have a certain charm to them. Legend of Dragoon is an example of how they can be funny but also tolerable. In BoF2, they are crippling. Debilitating. No one who has a third grader’s understanding of the English language proofread this before giving it the go ahead.  Punctuation and grammar are afterthoughts. When you try to unite your shamans, “No” means “Yes” and “Yes” means “No.” I went around and around the same conversation before I realized that when I was telling her I didn’t want a shaman explanation, I actually had to tell her I did want one, even though I didn’t, I just wanted to do the damn uniting already.

Item descriptions tend to be pointless or unintelligible. When hovering over a sword, the description says, “Is a sharp blade.” …Ya don’t say? A sword is sharp, huh? My gamer senses are telling me the blade is sharp, thanks. What I really want to know is if it has any special properties or elemental attributes. But whatever. One of the accessory descriptions says “Erase the spell.” Um, pardon? I mean, I had all kinds of guesses about what that might mean, but I’d like to think I deserve a little better idea of what I’m getting myself into before putting the thing on. It really should’ve said, “Periodically nullifies magical damage” but something tells me that’s a bit complicated, given the translator’s ineptitude. I’ve also  read conflicting reports online about whether the “Collar” accessory increases or decreases the encounter rate.  Personally, I found my encounter rate to be consistently high no matter what I did.

Want proof no one bothered to read the crap they were putting in this game? Check this out. Anyone who knows Japanese language stereotypes knows that “r” comes out as “l” when they speak English . Well, if you decide to go fishing, the small menu that pops up asks you if you want to equip a “lod.” Seems like they didn’t bother checking on whether “lod” was actually a word in the English language or not. I even typed “lod” into dictionary.com and all I got was a poor translation of a town in Israel. In case you can’t wrap your head around this, when you want to fish and the game gives you the option to “Equip lod/bait” they actually mean ROD. As in FISHING ROD. Not one English speaking person read this, or perhaps they didn’t care to point out the glaring error because even if the game had glorious English it would still stuck. But I still think the morons who thought this was a passable translation should have been laughed out of Capcom after having a fishing “lod” shoved up their buttholes.

All this translation ridiculousness aside, the biggest problem I have with it all is feeling lost most of the time because I couldn’t make heads nor tails out of what the NPCs were trying to tell me, which leads me to my next main complaint…

4.) LACK OF DIRECTION/POOR PLOT- I’ll give the bad translation some of the credit for this. You really can’t expect to play this game for story purposes because when it isn’t being a stereotypical JRPG, it is a convoluted mess of strange sentences and bizarre roadblocks. I hope I’m not forgetting anything, because I’m going to give you a series of events we had to do in order to advance the plot: Recruited a new party member in order to talk to a tree, tried talking to the tree, but he needed a “Dream Pillow” in order to recall something important… we went to where the “Dream Pillow” was located, but none of the citizens would speak with us because we didn’t have some fancy instrument. As it so happened, Monkey Sten knew where to get one so we went to his hometown and proceeded with the solo crap I complained about earlier to get the flute or whatever it was called, went back to the town where the “Dream Pillow” was, then we had to go find some secluded old man and bring him there. THEN we had to return to where we JUST picked up the old man to get an item he needed from his apprentice so we could go INSIDE the fat ruler of “Dream Pillow” town and kill her demonic fat cells. They then gave us the “Dream Pillow,” we went back to the forest and after all that work the absent-minded ancient tree told us the demons were killing the forest.

DA FUQ JUST HAPPENED?!

Saved a queen by turning into microscopic lipid destroyers and clearing out her colon? Un-freaking-believable. All to get a dream pillow from a forgetful tree who doesn’t have a HEAD to rest on said pillow… To be told meany demons were killing his tree friends. I have to say, for my first video game liposuction procedure, it was underwhelming. Ten hours of pointless running around doing completely random fetch quests, and the only hints towards a grander, overarching scheme were demonic fat cells and tree killers.

I don’t always ask to have my hand held throughout an entire game. I know that, especially in older RPGs, there will be times when the game doesn’t give me much to go on moving forward. Sometimes you just have to explore a little bit, talk to NPCs, or follow an old hint. BoF2 doesn’t bother to give the courtesy of even a vague shrug in the right direction most of the time. No cardinal directions, no “check out the mountains,” no “talk to the people here,” no nothing. Most of the time, you’ll complete a dungeon and then sit there, scratching your head, wondering where you’re supposed to go next.

At one point, an NPC said “Go learn about St. Eva.” Which, by the way, is an abbreviation for St. Evan. Everything in this game is abbreviated, which is totally annoying, by the way.  What on earth do you suppose that means? “Go learn about St. Eva.” It means that you have to go to a church and talk to a priest about 20 times until you’ve donated a small fortune. Apparently after you donate a certain amount of money, you get a free bible for your troubles! The priest doesn’t even hint that he’s going to teach you about St. Eva or give you a lifelong donor prize or anything, either. It is all totally random, and I don’t know who would stand there and donate a ton of their hard earned money for no reason. Without the wonderful internet, we would have literally spent hours wandering around between almost every major dungeon and town trying to figure out what the game wanted us to do next.

We also missed the boat on a lot of cool things we could do. Mostly because we had no idea about any of the people we could recruit or things we could do with the TownShip. The first NPC we spoke to who wanted to join our TownShip caught us by surprise. We let him join our cause, of course, but it was to our detriment. It’s one of those systems where there are only a certain amount of people who perform different tasks (carpenter, armory, fishing, etc.) that you can recruit. So if there are two armor sales people and you invite one of them into your town, you’ll screw yourself out of the best armor if you pick the wrong one.  There’s no tutorial or anything about all of this stuff, so you happen upon NPCs and tell them the wrong thing and hate yourself later for it.

Oh, and you can also make the TownShip fly! A flying headquarters, something every RPG needs! Final Fantasy already had the lockdown on the airship thing at this point in time, so it was a unique idea. Well, you need a certain NPC for this as well. Except this NPC can be killed. And boy, did we kill this NPC good. It’s a boss fight, and a boss fight that doesn’t think to give any indication that killing him might be a bad idea. No awkward dialogue, no Game Over if you kill him. Things continue on as normal. If my memory serves correctly, he was begging us to kill him. Should’ve known better than to trust anything a character in this damn game says. By killing him we ALSO ruined our chances of getting the good ending.

So after all that work, we ended up with the bad ending and had to youtube the good ending. In my opinion, the bad ending is more fitting… The good ending is a bit cheesy. But it is frustrating that in a game where the player can unintentionally screw themselves over so much, there is no option to save on a different save file at the dragon statues. And, like I said, no indications or hints or tutorials or anything.

5.) SHAMANS- The shaman uniting system was this game’s one chance at not totally sucking, but they managed to botch that too! The concept is pretty neat. Aside from Ryu and Bleu, all the other characters can unite with shamans you find throughout the game. If you chose the right shaman/s for each character, they transform, get great stat bonuses and a new ability. Katt turns into a hot cat chick, Rand turns into a lame pink pokemon, and Jean turns into a Battletoad-reminiscent mech. And there IS a tutorial for this, which you’ll accidentally sit through when you don’t want to because the shaman granny thinks “No” means “Yes.” Finding all the shamans does take some backtracking and exploration, so use a walkthrough. The problem is this: If a united character is killed OR knocked down to critical health they lose the shaman buff. And the enemies all somehow know. In the final dungeon, our party consisted of Ryu, Bleu, Rand and Katt, which means only half of our characters had shaman buffs. Without fail the enemies would spam death on Rand and Katt. Or they would take turns “Slamming” Katt, thus knocking her into the danger HP zone and removing her shaman buffs. Rand was even wearing the DmndBR (which means “Diamond Bracelet” for those who don’t speak RPG Abbreviations) and still fell to the Death spell even though that particular piece of equipment is supposed to prevent against it. When you lose the shaman buff, the only way to retrieve it is to return to your TownShip. Since we never got the TownShip to fly, we effectively had to return to the beginning of the game every single time. Needless to say, this resulted in a frustrating back-and-forth with the final dungeon where the mobs spammed Death and trying to run away from fights was pointless.

Even MORE frustrating is when your shaman buffs suddenly disappear after certain cut scenes. And yes, over halfway through the final dungeon there is one of these particular scenes. The game did us the favor of shuffling our party around and giving us back our characters WITHOUT the shamans they definitely had up until that point. It was almost like they wanted us hating the final boss fight, too. The final boss fights were as expected, not too easy but not too difficult, and the laughable plot almost made traversing the dungeon multiple times worth it. There’s really no reason or excuse for randomly losing the shaman buffs we intentionally tried so hard to keep so we could have them during the final boss fight. Okay, maybe there IS one excuse: the developers really didn’t want anyone to potentially have fun while playing this game.

Those are my main gripes with this game, but there are definitely more. Aside from Death and buff spells, magic is pretty crappy in this game. Angel, a “Holy” spell, doesn’t hurt undead enemies, and this applies to pretty much all of the elemental weaknesses you’d think would exist. The inventory management system is a mess: items that should stack on their own don’t. You have to go into your inventory and “Clean” your mess of items which should happen automatically, in my opinion. There don’t seem to be items that fully heal a character’s AP, and one of the only satisfying high-damage moves is Ryu’s G. Dragon spell, which uses all of his AP. So unless you want to spend turns giving him 4 WFruits, you only get to use the spell once per fight. I mean, really, what kind of RPG doesn’t have an item to fully heal a character’s magic pool? You don’t get the satisfaction of seeing high numbers very often. As I mentioned before, even if Katt had her shaman buff her HP still wasn’t high enough to withstand two enemy crits in a row. The only high damage outputting moves we found were Ryu’s Dragon spells, Jean’s “Chop” (which failed the second time we tried to use it so we didn’t bother), and Katt’s “Keep” ability with an Atk-Up boost. No matter how much time we spend experience, we never really felt like we were getting ahead of the enemies.  The game also likes to switch around your party set-up, but it’s not like that means anything, because enemies commonly ignore the character you put in the front because you want them to soak up most of the damage. Rand, who has great healing spells, and Bleu, who is a flat-out mage, both had more HP than the main character. Not bad, but a little confusing.

Oh, and this game has NO stealing. Big letdown. Especially since there’s a depressingly low number of accessories in this game, it’d be nice to be able to steal accessories and equipment from bosses.

If, despite everything I’ve just said, you insist on letting this game play you, I will make a couple of suggestions. Play an emulated version with fan translations. Really, die hard fans do so much better with walkthroughs than the people who get paid to do them. And I KNOW in this case, it is impossible for their translating to be any worse than the official version. Plus, with an emulator, you can take advantage of save states and save yourself some frustrations. My other suggestion is to hug a good walkthrough. It’ll save you from a lot of the troubles we had. But honestly, if I was given an ultimatum that I either had to play this game again or shove hot pokers underneath my toenails, I’m pretty sure I would choose the latter.

Lollipop Chainsaw

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Chainsaws + Gratuitous Zombie Slaying + Crude Humor = One of the Best Games Evar! And if that isn’t enough, Tara Strong voices the main character! You know, THE Tara Strong. As in Princess Clara & Toot of Drawn Together;  Rikku from Final Fantasy X & X-2; Twilight Sparkle, My Little Pony; Bubbles of Powerpuff Girls… I could go on and on with her credits. If you still don’t recognize her voice, check her out on IMDB. If you’ve never seen anything she lends her voice to, you haven’t played a video game or watched a cartoon in the last 15 years.

I don’t know if I am capable of being politically correct while writing this opinion piece, because the very nature of this game is to offend and push boundaries. If you’re one of those people who can’t play a game without taking it seriously and your feathers ruffle at vagina jokes, then this game isn’t for you and you shouldn’t waste your time reading the rest of this entry. For the rest of us who laughed out loud while playing Bayonetta and appreciate sparkling rainbows backdropping zombie limbs flying across our television screens: There is no question we must play this game. This is all about target audience, folks.

The sexual humor is the only comparison I can make to Bayonetta, because Lollipop Chainsaw does not have the in-depth and polished battle system, and the stories run no other parallels. LC is a mostly action, sometimes gimmicky shooter romp through zombie ridiculousness. Suda51 is the mind behind this game, so if you’ve played Shadows of the Damned you know what to expect: Lots of ridiculous sex humor and a fun (but sometimes clunky) battle system. Juliet Starling is the main character in this game. Yes, she’s female, and yes, I think that is the basis for people’s panties getting all twisted up over this game. In Shadows of the Damned, the player controls Garcia ‘F***ing’ Hotspur, a rough-around-the-edges Hispanic demon killer. Playing a male character led to most of the offensive stuff equating to dick jokes. Generally speaking, our society seems more comfortable with those. In LC, zombies spout off random, nonsensical insults (I won’t divulge any because, really, that’s half the fun), colored with typical female-targeted terms like ‘whore’ and ‘slut.’ I spent the entire game waiting to hear the mother of all derogatory female slurs, the uber-offensive “C” word, and didn’t hear or see it once. Far as I can tell, it is completely absent from this game, leaving me to wonder what all of the fuss is about. Really. I mean, aren’t we all desensitized when it comes to the aforementioned words, or is it just me? I wasn’t offended because A.) I like raunchy jokes, and B.) I understand the greater irony of it all. Juliet’s personality is the polar opposite of the slutty cheerleader stereotype. She is a hot, blond, popular cheerleader who also happens to be a trained zombie slayer (the family business)… but when it comes to sex she’s about as clueless and innocent as they come. The end result is a hyper-sexualized innocent virginal chick that doesn’t seem to get the vulgar insults zombies throw at her while she slices off their limbs with a pink chainsaw. But now I’m on the verge of taking this game too seriously, which I already said we can’t do, so I’ll move on.

Let’s discuss the battle system. You have a hack’n slash gory action game with blood and zombie limbs galore. It doesn’t take very much work to earn an eyeful of zombie limbs and heads flying across the screen. In fact, if you can manage to kill at least 3 zombies in one fell swoop, you get to see the blood spraying and body parts flying in slow-motion with rainbows and medal bonuses! This is called “Sparkle Hunting,” thus ensuring you will thoroughly enjoy every minute spent medal farming and trying to earn the trophy/achievement for slaying 7 zombies at once. Zombie medals are used for buying new skills, permanent upgrades, and consumable items. There are also platinum medals, which are rarer, and used to buy new outfits and other unlockable goodies. I find that purchasing abilities and upgrades leads to pretty well-paced character progression. I like games that don’t throw everything at me in the beginning; I feel overwhelmed and never learn all of the attacks. LC allows the player to learn one combo at a time.

The combos are not too complicated, just various usages of the attack buttons. Only a minimal amount of practicing button timing is needed. For the PS3 version, square is the pom-pom attack button which makes zombies “groggy,” leaving them vulnerable to chainsaw attacks with triangle. I strongly suggest purchasing Juliet’s Butt Bump ability as soon as it is available. It is a square attack that will make the tougher zombies who have life bars groggy instantly. Follow it up with a simple swipe of the chainsaw, and you two-shot some of the more annoying enemies in the game. It almost feels like cheating. Holy Combo is the final combo, which costs 999 medals and is also a showstopper. If there is a sequel (please, gaming gods, let there be a sequel), I would ask for a combo-cancellation command. Zombies are indifferent to being knocked around by a chainsaw, and will annoyingly interrupt your cheerleading prancing often. Needless to say, Juliet the human doesn’t have that innate ability, meaning as soon as one zombie sucker-punches you out of what you THOUGHT was a fancy combo, the rest of its buddies will take turns ganging up on you. On the bright side… unless you are damaged by a dynamite zombie (equally annoying) or a cop zombie (zombies with guns! Why?!), you’ll take less damage than you might expect. We made a point of purchasing the permanent health upgrades and rarely died from raw physical damage.

No, most of your deaths will be from the always annoying and always present gimmicky mini games. And I’m not talking about the quicktime events. While there’s PLENTY of those to go around, they didn’t cause me all that much grief. I’m conditioned to them I guess. I know my PS3 controllers like the back of my hand and have been honing my QTE skills since God of War came out. In fact, I rather liked the silly QTEs with poor Nick and the silly vault and trampolines. No, I’m talking about the quirky game mechanics and stupid things someone thinks are great ideas to change up the pace when I’m perfectly happy hacking zombie limbs like tree branches. Chainsaw Blaster definitely left the worst taste in my mouth. Juliet’s birthday present from her NRA mistress sister Cordelia is a gun add-on to her chainsaw. As soon as you get it, you’re forced to win a game of zombie baseball to proceed. If you don’t think to go into your options menu and change the Blaster aiming to manual from the default (auto) you’re going to be tearing your hair out in frustration because the game likes to automatically target enemies as far away as possible from the ones you need to kill first. So trust me and do it as soon as you turn the damn game on so you don’t spend the entire game hating the Chainsaw Blaster as much as we did. You can, however, use it to rack up some easy Sparkle Hunting if you’re shooting up a hoard of zombies.

The other annoying and periodically mandatory chainsaw modification is called Chainsaw Dash. It is used to traverse rainbow ramps over large gaps and rooftops. You have typical trails of currency to follow and collect. If you fail to pick up the tanks strewn about the path, the chainsaw will overheat and you need to wait it out or grab a tank to proceed. The controls for Chainsaw Dash bothered me at times. Holding down R1 initiates the dash. Like driving, I always expected the dash to stop when I let go of the button, which isn’t the case. Nor can you hit an attack button to cancel out of it until you purchase the abilities, and they aren’t even very good. To stop dashing without twirling around for two minutes, the evade button must be pressed. I wasn’t crazy about it for whatever reason. Steering the thing is obnoxious too, but isn’t that a given at this point?

In general, the game’s pacing is pretty good. Short, but well-paced. It certainly starts off with a bang. There is a prologue, featuring Juliet riding into her zombie-infested high school, popping off zombies with her bicycle, followed by six stages. The weakest link is, by far, stage three. Up until that point, Juliet is running around her high school, slaying zombies and saving fellow students. You want to save all the students. Yes, it unlocks the good ending, but more importantly, you’re rewarded with more random and amusing lines. Seriously, I could quote this game all day. Anyway, after spending the prologue and the first two stages exploring the parking lot, school, and outdoor stadium, I suddenly found myself on a… farm. Ah, what? It’s a pretty awkward and jarring transition, and I thought the stage progression felt slower too. While I am happy to add slaying zombified cows, horses and poultry to my resume, I would’ve preferred to replace a FARM stage with a movie theater or something. It would’ve made more sense than saving students in the middle of a cornfield. Add this to chasing around Juliet’s more annoying sister, Rosalind, and being forced to use the Chainsaw Blaster I already hated, and it quickly became the least impressive part of my LC experience. Stage four picks right back up where the game left off. Juliet and her family make their way to an arcade. Ideally they could’ve thrown in some more zombies, but the super creative games and super funny boss definitely made up for it. I won’t say much more about the rest of the stages, except that stage 6 is aptly named “WTF?”

The length of the game has me a little conflicted. On one hand, I really want to support the developers so they will continue to make games like this, but on the other hand, I have a hard time telling others to pay full price for this game if they aren’t in it for the grind. LC’s all about replay value. We breezed through the story mode in 4-5 hours, and I believe that included doing some medal farming on the prologue stage. In order to get your money’s worth in terms of playing hours, you need to go after unlockable goodies and trophies/achievements. This usually isn’t my cup of tea, but I loved my romp with Juliet so much and the game is so short, I’ve been partaking in the grind in between Assassin Creed III sessions. Between finding all of the collectables, trying to beat Dad’s high score, playing ranking mode and various difficulties, there’s enough to do if you so choose. Playing Hard mode isn’t hard at all, but getting some of the achievements/trophies are. I haven’t dabbled in Very Hard mode and probably never will… I’m too euphoric finding a game where I can breeze through a mode tougher than Normal and not want to tear my hair out. To be fair, I’m sure the one-liners and gimmicks would get old if the game were too long. Brevity works in the game’s favor in this aspect, but I was hoping for closer to 10 hours, which is the norm for a lot of action games nowadays.

Lollipop Chainsaw is the second surprisingly clever zombie game I stumbled across in 2012 and chastised myself for not playing earlier. Dead Island would be the first. Both of these games are on my nonexistent ‘Favorite Games of all Time’ list. Part of me wants to spend a couple of pages gushing about Lollipop Chainsaw’s ridiculous characters, hilarious pop culture references, creative boss fights, and unbelievable zombie descriptions (do NOT forget to browse your zombie collection catalogue from time to time)… but due to time constraints and not wanting to spoil the best parts about the game, I’m going to leave this game’s awesomeness to your imagination until you play it. And you should seriously do so. Like, yesterday.

Xenoblade Chronicles

Happy 2013! To celebrate the new year on my blog, I’m going to start with a post dedicated to a game I spent a lot of 2012 playing: Xenoblade Chronicles!

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Being a fulltime working mother of an infant, I often wish there were more hours in the day. Or that I could reliably function on, say, 3 hours of sleep. Every once in a while I pick up a game and damn myself for even trying to play it because I don’t have the time of day to give it the attention it deserves. Xenoblade Chronicles is one of those games. To be fair, I really have no one to blame but myself. I picked the game up when I was still pregnant. I (obviously) hadn’t done enough research on the game. All I knew was that it was a JRPG on the Wii that struggled to make its debut on the western hemisphere despite all the great buzz about it. Good JRPGs are hard to come by nowadays, I needed a new game for my Wii, and I had a Gamestop gift card to blow, so I picked the game up and brought it home.

Needless to say, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I don’t regret buying the game; I only regret not giving it the proper attention it deserves. Like many open-world exploration games, a player just cannot spend enough time exploring the world of Xenoblade Chronicles. In fact, I actually clocked in more hours playing Xenoblade than Elder Scrolls: Skyrim… and I was impressed with the time I put into Skyrim! Xenoblade has vast, beautiful environments to explore, and rewards players with experience and hidden goodies for doing so. It also has a ridiculous amount of quests. Over 400, if you’re looking for a ballpark figure.  Add on top of that the hefty main plot cinematics, managing the development of seven playable characters including skill and ability trees, increasing their affinities with each other to unlock extra dialogue (“Heart to Heart” sequences), an ongoing trading mini-game with NPCs, and tons of customizable equipment via gem crafting, and you have a recipe for an impressively immersive and ambitious RPG.

The only unimpressive aspect of this game is the graphics, hands down. I’m pretty sure I saw some SNES rendering sneak its way into the backgrounds. I’m very guilty of wishing this game was released on an HD system, because then it would be near perfection. The character models aren’t bad most of the time, but hideous at other times. Especially when they’re wearing ridiculous gear. I have a love-hate relationship with games that change character models depending on what they’re wearing. When someone’s outfit matches its pretty sweet. When each piece they’re wearing is from a different set, they look like a clown I’m stuck staring at it during all of the cutscenes. One of the playable characters, whom I will refer to as “Seven” to avoid spoilers, looks silly most of the time in a “How can they even walk?!” sort of way. At one point, most of my characters were wearing Sleek Oil, which meant they weren’t wearing anything at all. My dudes were topless and my chicks were sporting skimpy brassieres.

While I’m talking about character design, I’m going to throw this out there: Xenoblade Chronicles deserves the “Dumbest Main Character Name” award. Following JRPG tradition, you play as a blond male protagonist with a special sword. A special sword that also has a dumb name. This particular blond guy’s (or should I say “bloke’s”) name is Shulk, and his sword is the Monado. Shulk (Shuck? Skull?) has to be the worst name ever. Except for Butz from Final Fantasy V, but we can chalk that up to a translation error. Shulk is also  a boring nice guy. Out of all the party members, he was definitely the least interesting to me. And, following another JRPG standard, he is a well-rounded physical and magic user who gets a good combination of both types of abilities with his fancy-dancy sword.

The Monado grants Shulk visions of the future. The way they incorporated this plot point into battle was pretty creative. When an enemy is about to perform a devastating or fatal move, Shulk receives a vision. This interrupts the battle flow to play a clip of the enemy totally screwing you over. After you see the avoidable future, you need to try preventing it. A doomsday countdown appears on the top of the screen and the playable character can “warn” somebody else, giving you access to their equipped abilities to change the flow of battle. For example: If a monster is about to lay the smack-down on the healer who accumulated too much aggro, you can tell the tank to use an aggro building or absorbing ability with no regard to the ability’s current cooldown. A neat idea in the beginning, but it gets annoying when you can’t fast forward or press a button to skip the event you keep getting forced to watch. Or you’re fighting on a narrow path/hallway and can’t reach the character you want to warn because you’re fighting an enormous beast and can’t walk around its girth. OR one of your characters has fallen off the edge of the world because, yes, you can slip off those narrow walkways suspended hundreds of feet above oblivion. And this happens. A lot.

There are seven playable characters. The game supplies some typical builds to work with. You’ve got a meat-shield tank, a dodge tank, a healer, a mage/summoner, and a few different damage builds. The beauty in this battle system comes in the variety and freedom it grants the player. Each playable character has different gimmicks you can utilize to enhance their abilities. Shulk has attacks that debuff the enemy if he strikes them from the correct position. Dunban has something similar; there are a handful of abilities that have certain effects if they are used after Gale Slash. And Melia, one of my favorites, summons elemental buffs and then releases them for elemental damage. You only get control of one character at a time, as it is a real-time system, so you’ll definitely be switching to freshen things up a bit. I do lament the ability to swap between characters during battle. In late game boss fights it is impossible to know how to optimize your setup before you die a few times and say to yourself, “Hmm, maybe I should try controlling the tank.” As we all know, AI in games is only so smart, and doesn’t always perform ideally. The tank will only aggro one enemy at a time, or the mage will insist on standing in a puddle of poison water. This only frustrated me in the final fourth of the game where there is a ridiculous difficulty curve (more on that later), but it enhances the limited capabilities of real-time AI versus old school turn-based. When it got to the “make or break” point in the game I found a button command I never had to use before then. I believe the game developers called it the “Retreat to me” button. I call it the “Get your dumb ass out of the poison” button.

Two of my RPG pet peeves are missing from this game: Constantly getting party raped, and being forced to use the main character all the time. I cried tears of joy when I found out I could designate whoever I wanted as point and take Shulk out of my main party when I so chose. Not because he’s particularly bad, because he isn’t, but when you spend hours upon hours exploring the world and fighting enemies, you really need some variety. As I mentioned before, each character has a different shtick, so if you want to potentially maximize everyone’s potential, you’ll dedicate time learning their ability sets and designating skills.

There are a couple of my pet peeves that DO exist. One, which is going to take me far less time to rant about than the other, is time fluctuation. More specifically: the passage of time and how it affects gameplay. I have no problem with the pretty landscape changing with the rising and setting of the sun. Nor do I have an issue with monsters being more difficult at night during the day. What annoys me is the change in NPC behavior depending on the time of day. When I’m already sifting through 100 quests and trying to remember where the NPC I spoke to even was, I really can’t be bothered to remember whether it was noon or midnight when I spoke to that NPC 5 gameplay hours ago. 99.9% of the quest descriptions don’t bother to tell you when/where you can find that NPC either. And the loading time on the Wii for this game was frustrating. Sometimes I walked circles around an NPC before they showed up on the screen or their icon appeared on the minimap. In my opinion, it really functions as nothing more than an annoyance. I suspend my disbelief for a lot of crap when I play video games, I certainly don’t care if NPCs sleep all night.

My other pet peeve crosses over into the “point of no return” moment I mentioned earlier. I get very frustrated when a video games does a complete 180 on the player. The difficulty curve when I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore was astounding and jarring. I played this game on and off over the course of about 7-8 months. During that time I only utilized online walkthroughs for NPC locations to turn in quests. Never, EVER, did I need any assistance with boss battles. I casually quested and grinded and had no difficulty in plot fights or killing anything that wasn’t 5 or more levels higher than my party. The irony is this: The day before I got stuck on a boss battle for the first time, I said to myself, “I’m done screwing around with this game. I’m just gonna bulldoze the plot and beat it so I can move on with my life.”

Apparently the gods of gaming heard me. Soon after, I waltzed into a boss fight and got pummeled to a bloody pulp. Embarrassingly so. I figured I got unlucky, or it was a fluke, so I tried again. And again. And again. Bewildered, I went online and did some research. Lo and behold, I was not the only person shocked at the jarring difficulty curve thrown at me. Determined, I did some optional quests to unlock more abilities for the Monado, and I leveled up until I could keep going. But then I hit another roadblock. And another. Three boss fights in one day had me pulling my hair out trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Which would have been fine, if the 60 hours of gameplay before it alluded to the fact it would be that sort of game. Don’t lure me into a false sense of security in the time it would have taken me to beat 5 other games just to turn around and be like, “Bitch, please!” and virtually emasculate me. I had to read battle tutorials and look up features I’d forgotten about because I never had to use them up until that fight. I agree games should get more challenging as they near the end, but not in a “Did someone change the difficulty to Extra Hard when I wasn’t looking?” way. It doesn’t really make sense to me. With the size and length of this game, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have reasonably worked the fights up to that difficulty. Or, you know, incorporate certain battle mechanics in map encounters before tossing you into a super-hard boss fight.  I’d rather know in the first five or so hours of playing a game if it is going to be a beat-my-head-against-the-wall type of experience or not (Devil May Cry 3, I’m looking at you).   

Which brings me to my horrible confession: I still haven’t actually beaten this game. As a matter of fact, I am stuck at the second form of the final boss fight. He summons his little minions, they swoop onto the scene, I begin trying to kill them, and usually before I have one downed my party gets wiped out (or close to it) with no warning. I leveled some more, of course, and changed my battle set up (who would have thought Sharla/Riki/Shulk would be such a great party?) but to no avail. And frankly, I’m sick of level grinding to see an ending cutscene that I can just watch on Youtube anyway. I’m frustrated that 90 hours of gameplay can’t even grant me the satisfaction of beating the game, but I conceded defeat and moved on with my life. Of course, if anyone out there has any suggestions that don’t include me spending 10 more hours of my life mindlessly level grinding, I’m happy to hear them. Until then, I’ll be playing Assassin’s Creed 3 and Lollipop Chainsaw.

Don’t let my complaints deter you from playing this game if you’re into RPGs. The battle system is versatile and fun. Some of my favorite video game composers worked on the music, and the story is pretty good. Like the Xeno-series, the story takes a little while to pick up, but the twists start coming at you left and right. Xenoblade Chronicles definitely earned the great acclaim and reviews it received, and I think more of us RPGers need to play these rare gems that don’t get super numbers because they aren’t blockbuster hit series. It is one of the best games I’ve played (and probably the best JRPG) in a long time that didn’t have a 2 or 3 after the title.