Beyond Two Souls

*-Beyond_Two_Souls_final_coverI love you, Ellen Page.

After a brief hiatus of not beating games for a while, I’m back! Hubby and I played Beyond Two Souls together. Playing cinematic adventures created by Quantic Dream together has kinda become our “thing” since playing Indigo Prophecy together back before we were married. Ah, memories.

So. Friday night we finally reached the conclusion of this game. For those of you not familiar with these Playstation exclusive gems; Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, and Beyond Two Souls are video games created by Quantic Dream. They are more video than game (becoming more and more “video” as time goes on) but the experiences each provides are certainly unique and definitely interesting, to say the least. This is only a Beyond Two Souls review so I won’t speak too much on the other games. All I will say is that these are all experiences worth having if you own a Playstation 2 or 3.

I will say that I generally enjoyed our experience with Beyond. There are plot summaries and descriptions of this game all over the internet so I’ll keep the plot synopsis to a minimum. But the thing is, this game is ALL plot so I have to talk at least a little about it to explain the good andbad. You essentially have two main characters:  Jodie, the woman acted by Ellen Page, and the disembodied soul who attaches itself to her, Aiden.  The player gets to play as both characters, depending on what the game requires at the time. Usually it is pretty clear as to whether you should be Jodie or Aiden. Sometimes you can cheat the game and choose to explore as Aiden. When you do so, you’ll usually stumble upon some Bonus unlockables. Otherwise, it is quite clear as to who you should be controlling.

And unless you’re finding some unlockable bonus items you’ll never look at, there is very little reason to stray from the main narrative. Beyond Two Souls is masterful at telling a story, don’t get me wrong (thanks, in no small part, to the amazing acting), but as far as being a video game, it falls a bit short. At least with Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, I felt like my actions contributed to something. Heavy Rain, especially, had significant and lasting effects to how the story played out depending on my actions and skill as a gamer. Beyond Two Souls? …Not so much. No matter whether we screwed up a quicktime event or not, the game continued on with the same story and events. Okay, until you get to the game’s climax. Responding to the quicktime events doesn’t require quite so much skill as it does, I don’t know… good guess work?

Call me a moron, but about half the time I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to be pressing for directions. in Beyond Two Souls, your cinematic events are navigated through responding to on-screen prompts (pretty easy) or moving the right analog stick. When prompted to move the right analog stick, the game goes into slow motion and you’re supposed to respond according to how Jodie is swinging her limbs. I had a really hard time figuring out if I was supposed to be aiming up, left, right, down, or wherever during most of these action sequences. Sometimes I felt like the game gave it to me just because. “Yeah, it’s like, up or right, close enough. Wherever you think the bad guy’s balls are.” You get the idea.

When you aren’t haphazardly responding to ambiguous quicktime prompts, you’re watching an interesting story unfold. Along the way, the main character Jodie and her attached soul Aiden are involved in a love/hate relationship with each other and the rest of the individuals they meet along the way. The story is told through snippets of memory along a nonlinear path. It is reminiscent to me of a certain autobiography I read relatively recently. Anyway, you’re in for a story told from a bouncing point of a view. I find this to have pros and cons. I am assuming from the game creator’s point of view, the “pro” comes in the form of being able to adequately space out the action sequences from the slower, more plot relevant sequences. I can appreciate that. Really, from a gamer’s perspective, I do. But from the storyteller/writer’s perspective, you have a discombobulated game that bounces from scene to scene, and it is quite hard to follow. And it feels like the writers wanted me to follow. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn’t. Most of the time I looked to my husband who has the better memory to remind me of the scenes before and after what we just did and connect the dots for me.

That’s what happens to players like us who go a week between gaming nights.

If you’re a better gamer than me and can beat this game in less than a week, then I suspect that’ll be less of an issue. But for those more distracted gamers like me. it is a bit of a problem. I’m not kidding, at the end of the game, when you get to pick the character Jodie chooses to stick with, I was like, “Wait a minute, who is that guy?!” This might be more of a commentary on my pathetic memory than the actual game, but I think it says something when a character doesn’t leave a big enough impression on my mind for me to remember his damn name when push comes to shove. To be fair, this particular guy’s chapter had little to do with the overall plot of the game.

Without going on for a few paragraphs about the game’s story, I will make a few observations. I did enjoy seeing Jodie grow up; as painful and action-deprived as the chapters may have been. Understanding where a fictional character comes from is very important in understanding where they are going; especially when it comes to knowing why they make the decisions that they do. As an aspiring author, I firmly believe this. And because I play video games for a myriad of reasons, I am willing to forego the necessity of killing things or breaking property to come to that realization. I would’ve much appreciated a coherent story than what I was presented with. Anyone who disagrees probably shouldn’t be playing this type of game.

Overall, I’m going to come out and say I think I liked Quantic Dream’s predecessor, Heavy Rain, more. I think breaking up the narrative through four different character’s eyes come across better than bouncing back and forth through one person’s point of view. Then again, that was a different story with a different presentation. So from a video gamer’s perspective, I’ll say that giving the player an actual reason to PLAY than to WATCH, is received much better. Us people who play video games like to think our input amounts to something. I certainly didn’t get the impression the buttons I was pressing on the controller meant much of anything. Until the ending, that is. And then it was pretty blatant. I tried so hard to kill a certain-douchebag-someone at one point… but the narrative decided I couldn’t. If you’re writing a video game, that seems pretty lazy. If there are certain repercussions, then show us what those are! Don’t rule them out entirely.

If you’re like me and recall those glory days of playing video games for their impacting story, then Beyond Two Souls is definitely for you. To be honest, the game doesn’t have much else going for it. If you decide to partake on this great adventure, you’ll come away with a great respect for all the actors who brought these characters to life. The dialogue the writers made them perform certainly didn’t do the trick.

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Saint’s Row The Third!

Saints_Row_The_Third_box_artThis is lame cover art for such an awesome game.

Half of my excuse for not having a lot of blog posts recently is because Steve-O and I have strayed from gaming during our hang out sessions. My other excuse is because I’ve spent the better part of two months trying to appreciate Saint’s Row III. I downloaded this game for FREE from Playstation Network. Looking back, I’m pretty sure it is the best free download I’ve played so far (though I do have a bit of a backlog currently). I certainly got the most mileage out of this title than other free downloads from PSN.

I may have mentioned once, or twice, or a hundred times, my love for over-the-top, I-don’t-take-myself-seriously humor. You’ve seen how overly critical I am of games that take themselves uber seriously (The Last of Us, Tomb Raider). But when a game asks, “How about instead of trying to justify a bunch of trifle crap and be all serious we point out all the ridiculousness and poke fun at ourselves?” in the form of offering a 3-foot-long, purple sex toy as a melee weapon…

Yeah, I was sold pretty quickly.

This generous helping of over-the-top, filthy humor is delivered in the form of a free-roaming, sandboxy, action-rpg. A type of game I typically shy away from nowadays, due to lack of free time to play. But when I’d heard it had ludicrous humor and was free, I downloaded it anyway. After the opening scene, you’re treated to the character customization screen. I created a female character with a Russian accent. It. Was. Awesome. I don’t know, something about Russian accents makes everything funnier to me. Is that racist?

So anyway, since this is my first Saint’s Row experience, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’d heard it was akin to GTA, which is probably why I never actively pursued any of them. But when I read a Saint’s Row 4 review praising the over-the-top humor of the series, I became interested. After spending a considerable (for me) amount of time playing Saint’s Row The Third, I can honestly say it is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played… And I’ve played Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw.

The main gist of the game is to be Steelport’s numero uno gang. This means you get to make The Deckers, The Morning Star, and The Luchadores’ lives miserable until The Saints come out on top! Throughout the plot you’re derailing their efforts, naturally, as well as in some optional missions as well. If you’re out for a joyride in a vehicle you either hijacked from an unsuspecting driver or souped up at a “Rim Jobs” garage, you’ll unlock icons on the map. These indicate optional activities, locations up for purchase, or gang operations you can thwart. Thwarting gang operations is a fun, violent distraction. I won’t spoil too much with the other optional quests. But I will disclose that one involves intentionally getting yourself run over by cars.

The stores and other buildings you can buy up serve a few different purposes. If you purchase shops that offer goods for purchase, you’ll get a nice discount perk. Depending on the cost of the building, you’ll also receive an hourly allowance (scaling from as low as $100/hour to $1,000/hr that I noticed), and of course increase your influence in that area of the city. Buying up properties also has an added strategical advantage; when you enter one of your properties your character automatically loses any notoriety they currently have with another gang, or those pesky law enforcement who seem to frown upon you running over and otherwise terrorizing people minding their own business.

Speaking of running people over… Along with the icons on the GPS map (accessed through your smart phone main menu) there are also 100% optional challenges you can complete. While in your cell phone menu, you can browse your messages which ask you to steal vehicles, commit assassinations (some of the tasks you must complete to draw out the target are HILARIOUS), and fulfill other challenge quotas. The challenge quota I fulfilled first was running over 500 pedestrians. Yep. And I’m proud of it, too.

So after I spent the first few hours of gameplay running over pedestrians, driving in the oncoming lane, and doing some vehicle thefts, I got to the nitty gritty of the story. Completing plot missions is the only way to unlock certain goodies which will make your life a lot easier. Like getting an RPG and a sniper rifle, for starters. The battle system in this game is heavily reliant on guns, explosives, and peppered melee here and there when you feel like kneeing jerks in the crotch or swinging around The Penetrator.

Changing which weapon you have equipped is a different method than I’ve used before and it took a little getting used to. You get four different slots for grenades, molotovs and such, as well as 8 slots for one of each gun type. You’ve got pistols, SMGs, shotguns, you name it. If you get bored of your current shotgun, and you’ve attained another one you want to play around with, you have to go to a “Saint’s Crib” to access your weapon stash. Throughout the game you’ll acquire a lot of cribs and strongholds to tinker with all your weapons, vehicles, outfits, and homies/gang members.

While progressing through the plot, you’ll “befriend” characters and they’ll become accessible homies. Then you can give them a holler via your smart phone and they’ll tag along with you while you wreak havoc on Steelport. If you aggro a rival gang member or some local law enforcement while driving around town, they’ll start shooting out the passenger side window for you. Needless to say, when you’re fighting they’ll join in too.

During most of your main missions, the game dumps whichever character is currently favored by the story with you. Thankfully you never have to worry about their ammo/inventory. Your tag-alongs do their own thing. But if they get KO’d, you do have to run over and resuscitate them. Think Resident Evil 5 chest pound. The only significant annoyance I had with the AI was when I wanted to get in my car and drive off but Pierce, for example, had different plans. You can’t drive off without a homie, just as you can’t let one die. So you have to sit in the car and patiently wait (while probably getting shot at or thrown out of the car) for the AI to decide to follow your lead.

Certain characters are plot-specific. Others, like homie types, are dependent upon how the player responds to certain situations. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of player choices there were to make. Some were difficult coin tosses. Others were no-brainers. Even the ending you receive is one of two different scenarios depending on what you decide. If you’re afraid of missing out on one of the endings, don’t worry; after the credits roll your character is plopped back in the city with the final mission available again so you can see how events would unravel if you decided differently.

I really enjoyed the cast of characters. Shaundi, Pierce, Zimos, Angel, Kinzie, Killbane, Cyrus… They all fit your typical niche/stereotypes while adding extra zest to the roles. I think Shaundi and Zimos were my favorites. I was disappointed that Zimos really tapered out of the story after his character arc.

My created character was great. The character customization is pretty in-depth. If you decide you don’t like something about your gang boss, you can always opt to give them plastic surgery. Or even an entire sex change, if you so desire. I didn’t like how certain accents were only available for one sex or the other. I thought that was a weird restriction. You can change your character’s clothes at any Planet Saints or at a crib. Different outfits and articles of clothing give different amounts of Respect.

Respect is experience in Saint’s Row. The RPG aspect of this game comes with the experience and character building. As you buyout the city and piss off the other gangs, you’ll earn Respect. With each Respect level you’ll unlock more abilities and goodies to purchase. Unlocked abilities vary from improving your character’s attributes, to increasing hourly income, and even beefing up your homies. These will all cost you money. I felt low on cash in the beginning of this game because I was dying to get some of the abilities, but I didn’t have enough real estate to make the money back quick enough. This all changes after you buy up a significant number of properties and kill some time by doing story missions or being a terror upon the unfortunately citizens of Steelport.

I think the only other main grievance I can come up with is wanting a fast travel option. Being able to fast travel to a select crib or stronghold would have been nice. Due to my current lifestyle I don’t get to play for long stretches of time at once so it wasn’t a significant drawback to me. But I bet if I got to play for 3-4 hours at a time it would be annoying.

I seriously think I could drone on and on about how absurdly awesome this game is. But instead of doing that, I’m just gonna tell you to hurry up and go play this game if you haven’t already!

Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon

The_Legend_of_Spyro_Dawn_of_the_Dragon

 

Totally digging Cynder’s green fire breath!

Over a year later, slcantwell and I finally saw the end credits to Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon. Give us a break. Whenever we hang out we’ve got two toddlers almost exactly a year apart to entertain, feed, and keep out of mischief. Playing co-op games makes this pretty darn difficult. Try not getting your on-screen partner pushed off-screen while negotiating diaper changes and meltdowns over sharing toys.

So, yes, we often went a month or two at a time before picking up this game again. I want you to keep that in mind, as I’m going to admit a lot of our frustrations stemmed from forgetting what button does what. (Something that could have easily been remedied with an input overview screen every other game takes the time to throw somewhere into their menus).

The rest of my frustrations mainly sprouted from a lot of outdated and/or lazy mechanics. As far as PS3 games go, this one is old. Back when they simultaneously released PS2 and PS3 versions of the same game old. Before trophy integration old. Laughable “wow looks like I AM playing the PS2 version” bad graphics old. Dawn of the Dragon was released before publishers decided to mainly start pissing on the idea of including local co-op in their games, so that’s a bonus in my book. Too bad the co-op camera is frustrating enough a lot of the time you’ll purposely swap to one player mode to get past certain landmarks or puzzles. Being able to switch one or two player mode on the fly is one of the few intuitive aspects of this game, actually.

As with many other video games, the camera is your worst enemy half of the time. The main shtick in Dawn of the Dragon involves Spyro and Cynder being attached by a magical leash (which must invoke some awkward “turn around I have to pee” moments). Anyway, this means when you’re playing co-op the camera arbitrarily bounces between which player it feels like following when you and your pal get distracted beating up enemies. Or one of you has a sudden “I gotta get outta here before I die” moment without verbally telling the other player. Depending on the backgrounds or puzzles going on, this got annoying really fast.

Surprisingly, most of the commands are similar to God of War. Light attack, heavy attack, grab, jump, and magic are the same. This was a helpful way for me to remember what button does what. It was NOT helpful when it came to using Fury mode. Like Rage of the Gods in God of War, Dragon Fury is the souped up “deal extra damage” mode you can access after filling a bar. I kept trying to click in the two analog sticks to trigger it and nothing happened. There’s also a way to transfer life or mana to the other player. Neither of which are anywhere to be found in the game unless they pop up as a tutorial message during load screens.

Compared to other Spyro games, the final installment is very open and offers more exploration. There’s magic, health and experience gems to be found, as well as armor pieces for Spyro and Cynder. There’s “elite” monsters to fight, too. Good luck with that. I don’t think we managed to kill one of them. It’s a “find the right element” coin toss we didn’t really have the patience for. Exploring these larger environments is easier with the new ability to fly around on command. This feature is fun until you want to land. Ugh. Then you realize you could’ve saved yourself a bunch of time because it takes longer to get the damn dragon to put its feet on the ground than it would’ve taken to just get there on foot.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, this game has magic. Spyro and Cynder have four elements at their disposal each. The experience points received from killing enemies and busting gems goes towards leveling up the elements of your choice. I didn’t quite get to max out everything but I didn’t really care– I always played as Spyro and I never used his earth element spells in battle. Electricity and Fire are where its at. Cynder’s Fear spell is pretty awesome too. Two characters to control with 8 elements between them made for very interesting puzzles to solve.

I can’t speak too much for the overall plot in terms of whether it does the Spyro trilogy justice or ties everything up neatly. My only prior experience with these games is the first Spyro installment on the Playstation, and that was so long ago I don’t remember much about it. All I can say is it is SUPER cheesy; from Sparx’s annoying Mushu-from-Mulan-wannabe-act to Cynder’s contrived “I love you” bomb during the ending cinematic, it was eye-rollingly bad. Sparx was the only non-forgettable character. And it’s for all the wrong reasons.

This game did boss fights right for the most part. When you fight a big baddie, it is a big baddie. Bosses can fill all of your vision, have multiple phases, do some major hurt, and have quicktime death animations to  boot!

One of my main complaints falls under my pet peeves. This is one of those games with a huge difficulty curve. Yes, we went months at a time without playing. But every time we picked the controller up we got back into the groove easily enough. When we reached the second-to-last zone it was like hitting a brick wall. All of a sudden we were unable to kill enemies unless we used Fury mode which never happened to us before that point. I prefer games that build up to that level; games that train the players to incorporate more skill until it becomes second nature. Don’t let me think this is a button-masher up until the last half hour of the game and make me want to give up because the fodder suddenly stop wanting to die. We were able to overcome the sudden spike in difficulty, but not without conferring with the internet to see if there was anything we were doing wrong. Nope. No special element or tricks. Just try not to get hit. Even when the camera refuses to show you the enemy pounding you from off-screen.

Following today’s standards, Dawn of the Dragon has quite a few blemishes. Bad graphics, poor sound quality, detrimental camera angles and forgettable characters/story rank at the top of my grudge list. Even still, this game has endearing qualities I can’t quite place. I don’t regret playing this game, but I doubt I will ever pick it up again. Dawn of the Dragon wasn’t incredible, but it wasn’t completely terrible either.  I’d say it walks a dangerous mediocre line, quite capable of teetering on the brink of bad depending on the player’s tolerance for outdated mechanics and silly dialogue.