Lightning Returns

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Lightning strikes way too many times!

   This month brought the end of the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy that I’m not aware many of us requested! This game is less than a month old, so I won’t touch on plot specifics. How many of us still play JRPGs for their plots, anyway? That’s a whole other beast, for a different post. Instead, this post will be focusing on the gameplay elements of this, well…game.

I imagine creating video game trilogies is a slippery slope, for a variety of reasons. You have to create a cohesive world, a tangible story that spans not just the typical forty hours, but upwards of a hundred, bare minimum. When you’re visiting the same base cast over the course of three games, you could rightfully expect to see considerable growth in the cast. Storytelling aside, however, I think we can expect the same consistency in gameplay elements. I’ve spent extensive time in FF13, I could stomach only one playthrough of 13-2, and am 3/4’s of the way through my Hard playthrough of LR. That being said, this has to be one of the most inconsistent trilogies I’ve ever played.

The battle system had a fair bit of tweaks between 13 and 13-2, but it was still reminiscent of the system that (in my opinion) was a remarkable evolution of the ATB system. Lightning Returns takes things into a wildly different direction by eliminating the rest of the party. With a few exceptions, you tackle the task at hand completely alone, and the Paradigm Shift feature has been replaced by letting the titular Lightning change her outfits and abilities mid-battle. This makes the loss of versatility that a full party would provide a bit less of a sting, and adds a fair bit of customization in giving you (almost) free reign over what parameters and abilities each outfit has. Each garb has, on average, one or two abilities “locked” onto the garb, around which you base the garb’s role. No more Ravager, Saboteur, Commando…you can build a magic-centric role that specializes in debuffs, but has an AoE elemental spell in to boost the Stagger gauge and deal damage. Your melee bruiser can leave a spot available for Deprotect, so he isn’t reliant on another role to optimize his damage. It’s an interesting twist on the battle system, and considering their insistence on limiting you to one character I’d say it works well. I recall statements earlier in the game’s development claiming it eschews the traditional turn-based system in favor of being more action-oriented. I was a bit skeptical when I initially heard this, but when I played the demo I was pleasantly surprised. When I hear “action-oriented RPG”, I think Kingdom Hearts. This game retains most of its ATB system, and despite missing two party members, it retains the structure of its predecessors. It crept toward the realm of ARPGs in a few ways, namely time-based attacks and defenses, and the ability to move in combat. Regarding the former, plenty of RPGs have incorporated timed attacks and defenses into their gameplay; Super Mario RPG and the Shadow Hearts trilogy, to name a few. Regarding the latter, Lightining’s movement speed is so slow that with the exception of a few attacks, the movement aspect does little more than keep all enemies in frame so you can time guards.  You get a select few abilities that displace Lightning in a select direction and can make for some crafty dodges, but the movement aspect sees little use otherwise. I found myself treating the game as its predecessors and disregarding the movement speed due to its slow rate. If I come back to Lightning Returns, I’ll experiment with Fatal Sweep and Evade (displacers) and Sniper’s Gloves (long-distance damage boosting accessory), but the abilities were simply too infrequent to give accolades to the movement system.

Compared to its predecessors, the amount of customization in Lightning Returns absolutely DWARFS the previous two games. Aside from the aforementioned role customization, they imported the cosmetic Adornment system from 13-2. Instead of putting a wind-up knob in a Behemoth’s skull, however, it’s Lightning’s! I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. Some of the adornments mesh very nicely with the myriad of outfits, others will never see the light of day.  The garbs themselves have a surprising degree of color customization, as well. On more than one occasion I found myself changing the outfit colors to match my hat, hair ribbon, or absolutely fetching Tonberry lantern. Lots of fun there, to be quite honest. Aside from a garb’s default colors, you can save three different custom color layouts. You also have a limited amount of customization with passive bonuses on abilities, but I’ll comment on this later.

Now, things are going to get a lot less pretty. The not-so-awesome changes, and the could-have-been-so-much-better changes. The battle system change brought with it a couple of baffling side-effects. Let’s start from the beginning…one character. You control Lightning as she performs her duties leading to the end of the world.  I can understand why you control her alone at the beginning, but as the main quests progress I see little reason why you must engage the rest of your crusade alone. To add insult to injury, the NPCs that could very well be flushing out a party and adding gravity to your quest can be found sitting around their towns, doing absolutely nothing.  When you spend the entirety of the first game banding together against a cruel fate, and the entirety of the second game amassing help from creatures to fight your way through time…why are people just sitting around town letting me do all the work? A little effort here, guys.

But the down and dirty is that you do, in fact, control one character. Which means one death is the end of the fight, unless you use consumables to revive or valuable EP to Arise. The three different active garbs have varying HP values, so your HP can fluctuate wildly as you switch from garb to garb. The biggest point of confusion is the withdrawal of Cure spells. You have a few quirky ways to restore your health, as well as the standard potions (in limited capacity). You could also opt to use your limited EP to heal, but with the other uses of EP it’s difficult to expend it on healing. In Easy mode, you gradually restore health outside of combat. It is confusing to me that, with the drop to a single character, why they would tear the staple healing spell from your repertoire. You’ll be glad to know that the game is balanced enough that Cure spells aren’t -required-, but it’s yet another omission that ostracizes the game from its predecessors.

Yet another violent jarring from what we’ve been accustomed to, is the time limit. Yes, the elephant in the room.  At first, the time limit put a whole lot of stress and pressure on me; you finally cut the reigns and let me do things by the beat of my own drum, but impose a time limit on me? By its very nature, it discourages exploring the open world they finally incorporated. And to an extent, that’s true…until you learn to abuse an early-gained ability called Chronostasis. This is the reason why it’s so difficult to warrant spending EP on Curaga (unless you’re playing on Easy mode…you’re swimming in excess EP, then). You can chain Chronostasis, yes…but then you’re limiting your EP expenditure to remove an arbitrary time limit, which means you aren’t checking out all the other abilities. I’m almost through the game twice and haven’t touched a handful of the abilities. I’ve only used Army of One on accident. When you put a death counter over the head of the player, a lot of us are going to clutch our EP for “oh crap” moments, even when it’s clear they won’t be needed.  I understand the story’s reason for putting a doomsday clock, but it could have just as easy tackled the day situation the way RPGs have for years; days end when you sleep at an inn, or in this case trigger an ability to return you to the Ark and end the day. The story gets its sense of impending doom, and the gamers wouldn’t have been frustrated and rushed through their first playthrough.

I have two huge grievances with gameplay elements of this game, and I’ve saved them for last. First, the levelling system. Talk about a huge step backward.  FF13 is tied with FF10 for what was, in my opinion, the best levelling system in the series. Customization from the ground up, right down to stat distribution as you level. You can beef up aspects according to what role the party needs at any pending obstacle, it was great. Then, FF13-2 completely gutted and dumbed down the system; it was disappointing, but still bore some resemblance to 13’s Crystarium. Then Lightning Returns came along and completely crapped on any sort of customizable character growth with their 3-point fetch-quest-based level system. Instead of killing monsters to gain points to allocate to stats in different roles, you go buy sunglasses at four PM for someone whose too shy to talk to his crush. Then you get a few HP, a couple points of strength and magic, and move on to foot-racing an eight year old to the train station.  Maybe after that you’re up for fetching a book for a goddamned message board. They call them ‘side quests’, but that insinuates that they are optional. And in a sense, they are…if you’re okay with absolutely zero stat growth, by all means ignore them. But if you want the sense of growing more powerful during your travels, gaining the might needed to overcome increasingly difficult obstacles then, by God, I hope you’re ready to sample food from six different restaurants and become a connoisseur of gourmet foods. Never mind the fact that you killed half a dozen eight hundred pound behemoths getting between towns, that doesn’t mean anything. If you want to increase that magical might, you had better be ready to go plant vegetable seeds! To be clear, I have nothing against quest experience; anything that diversifies how you strengthen your character gives you the option to spice things up a bit. But when the only way to level your stats is to accomplish a handful of bland, uninspired quests, there’s a problem. You discourage grinding, and while I’m all for giving alternatives to grinding for level gaining, just removing it altogether is absurd. The problem leads to an effective stat ceiling, and I’m certain I’m not the only gamer out there who thoroughly enjoys grinding to hilariously overpowered levels and dropping bombs on bosses. FF13 had stat ceilings as well, and I was about as fond of them then as I am now.  The level system was nothing short of a travesty. I suppose it’s just as well, considering grinding would be restricted in the game by way of the new Extinction mechanic. This has its ups and downs; the idea that your systematic killing has a lasting effect is kind of nice. The final specimen of a species is stronger, drops more gil and much better loot, so driving monsters extinct has a certain appeal. Just don’t think too much on the moral implications of what is essentially poaching. The other downside is that as you drive monsters extinct, you drive them extinct. No more farming EP to keep Chronostasis rolling, no more farming specific Abilities on later days, they’re gone until your next playthrough.

While I’m on the subject, allowing players to drive a creature extinct that only drops certain items on later days is pretty cruel. Giving the player no in-game indication that they drop said items later is even more cruel…unless I was mis-reading it, I had items listed on the bestiary page that were greyed out. I assumed I was unlucky and kept farming for said item, until the creature was extinct. I hopped onto a message board, only to find that they only drop those items on Hard mode. Oh, okay then. Two or three EP sources extinct and I had to rely on the internet to tell me what was going on? It seems inconsistent, because I’ve had other greyed out items drop; it was a matter of not yet acquiring the item. That makes sense. I can understand that you want to strong-arm us into a replay, but would it have killed you to leave the item drop spots blank, so I don’t farm them into extinction? Having to budget time and freaking monsters as a resource is bad enough, I’d have liked a bit of consistency in when I’m farming for something you won’t even drop in this game mode.

Speaking of forced replay value, my second biggest gripe is that they took the fun out of levelling; that’s pretty awful, but I soldiered on. In FF13 and FF13-2, you level your characters and their weapons and accessories alongside them. In Lightning Returns, you can upgrade weapons and shields, too! That is, after you’ve already beaten the game. Yes, in New Game +, you unlock the ability to do what you could do right at the beginning of the first and second FF13. In the same game that they absolutely eviscerated a decent level system, they also tore the ability to level your equipment until you’ve already beaten the game once. In a game whose overlying theme is restriction restriction restriction, expecting your players to stick around for a second playing is more than a little presumptuous.

The cons outweigh the pros, but when you get over the disappointment of what it could have been had it kept the strengths of the previous games, it’s mediocre in its own merit. If you’re on the fence, give it a few months; you will definitely see a sharp price drop.

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Flower

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Pretty. And… yeah, pretty.

 

Flower is another Playstation Network game developed by thatgamecompany on the wonderful compilation disc I am working my way through. Much of the praise I bestowed upon Journey can be repeated here. The art style, music, and gameplay is soothing and enjoyable. The two hours or so I spent with this game felt richer than many of my 10+ hour gaming experiences.

In Flower, you traverse different stages as a petal soaring in the wind. On each separate level you’ll collect petals along the way and become a force to be reckoned with. In the later stages, you’re granted some sort of super powers by mother nature and gain the ability to destroy evil human constructs! The evil human constructs can hurt you (damn electricity!) but like in Journey, the accrued damage is more conceptual than anything.

I must warn you that Flower integrates the six-axis motion controls. Instead of navigating the way you ride the wind with the analog stick, you have to tilt the controller left, right, forward and back. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it took me like, five minutes at the main menu to figure out how to start the game. Turns out you have to tilt the controller at the perfect angle; toddler crawling all over your nap or not! After the first level riding the wind became second nature, but I was somewhat annoyed at the game’s onset.

Flower obtains a subtle bond-with-nature vibe. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Journey, but I think that’s because Journey has that epic voyage feel to it and I was able to relate more to the cloak with legs than a bunch of flower petals. But it is still a good zen game and I liked the two hours I spent with it.

Journey

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I felt this small while playing the entire game. And it felt good.

I love playing video games, I really do. I almost always choose to play some sort of video game over watching television or reading when I have down time. However, I often feel like playing video games has lost the ability to relax me. Help me forget about my bad day at work, sure, but not relax me. With all the time management, micro-managing and skill-honing it takes to get through some games, gaming can sometimes be nearly as stressful as real life. After a terrible morning last Saturday, I didn’t feel up to the task of trudging through another tower in Pandora’s Tower (Puzzles, scarce save points and timers, ahoy!). Instead, I decided to pop in the compilation disc my husband gave me for Christmas and start up Journey. 

Journey truly is an escape. After finally dedicating the two hours to experience it, I can see why the critics raved about Journey. yes, sadly, it will only take about two hours of your time. This does include stopping to smell the flowers, which you’ll definitely find yourself doing more than once, despite the simplified style they went for. That’s because this game strives for incredible immersion. The music flows and reacts to what the player is doing. It never loops and it is never dull. Music in video games is always a feature I especially pay attention to. The incredible soundtrack is the only audio in the game, save for the adorable “chirps” the, um, cloth creatures you interact with make. I read that when you play online you can communicate with other players who seamlessly pop in and out of your game with the same sound. I never hooked my Ethernet cable into the PS3 so I couldn’t say. 

Your avatar on the screen looks like a cloak on legs with a scarf flowing behind it while jumping and soaring. Surprisingly flat colors, too; browns and blacks, mostly. The bulk of interaction (aside from the gorgeous scenery) you’ll have is with pieces of cloth, which serve to light up your scarf to grant you the ability to jump or glide and reach new areas. When resting, you witness cutscenes where white-robed figures tell a story through murals. The exposition is very subtle, and yet you can’t help but feel a grander scheme behind it all as your cloaked avatar climbs the enormous mountain on a dangerous journey. 

I say dangerous, but you cannot die in Journey. There’s no health bar to speak of. There is one enemy, but the damage it inflicts is staged and there is no threat to death. Even so, every time the big baddie appeared I felt a burst of pity for my avatar when it tumbled back down the mountain and took its time getting back to its feet. In a short two hour game, I am impressed with how quickly I became emotionally invested in a character that did not speak. I felt like I was sharing in a difficult mission against the elements with it, braving the mountain, feeling small and helpless together against the sheer power of nature. 

Journey is soothing. Relaxing. I’m sure many gamers won’t dig this game at all. It isn’t typical by any means. Artsy-fartsy, sure, but it didn’t come across as an annoying, pretentious, “artsy-fartsy just for the sake of being so” kind of game. Everything Journey does is done well, and it certainly pushes some boundaries with what we expect games to entail. I’d certainly present this game if I were ever to enter an “Are video games art?” debate. More than just art, this game proved to me that video games can take me to a calming, better place, versus the violent, aggression-releasing games that have saturated the market. 

 

Alice: Madness Returns

AliceMadnessReturnsDon’t mind the blood splattered all over her apron.

Talk about cult classics I wish I’d known about when they released! I found Alice: Madness Returns to be a unique and disturbing experience; merging the imagery and scenery I appreciate from psychological horror with action game mechanics. Steve-O and I received this game as a Christmas gift. While we haven’t played the first game, American McGee’s Alice which was released for PCs in 2000, the disc came with a free download of the first game, which we plan on starting ASAP. This blog post will not make any comparisons with the first installment (though I’m anticipating this to be a superior experience in comparison to the decade-old PC game).

In Madness Returns, the player controls Alice in both reality and Wonderland as she tries putting the pieces of her fractured psyche back together. In mundane reality, the player mainly talks to NPCs and walks from point A to point B. Be sure to take a close look at Alice’s fellow citizens. And don’t do so while eating or drinking anything. Especially the women. Ugh. There is a lot of storytelling that leaves holes. It is hard to tell if it is intentional or not. But if I was paying close enough attention, from what I gathered, whenever Alice faces a significant amount of duress in the real world, she goes to Wonderland to face her problems in her imagination or subconsciousness or whatever. This leaves a bit to the player’s imagination to piece events together.

While in Wonderland, memorable characters such as the Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter appear. They drop kind and not-so-kind hints to Alice about what the deuces is going on. Basically, her damaged mental state is affecting Wonderland, and not for the better. Alice goes on a personal journey, so to speak, to fix Wonderland and herself. This journey involves some neat and frustrating puzzle platforming, as well as killing volatile creatures with some of the strangest weapons I’ve seen in a video game yet.

The battle system in Madness Returns is reminiscent of many typical action games, but with bizarre twists. In Wonderland, Alice wields every day household items with deadly skill. A kitchen knife serves as your fast attack button. A Hobby Horse is the heavy attack. A Hobby Horse is one of those old-fashioned horse heads attached to a stick that kids used to pretend to ride on, in case you were wondering. I never knew that was the name for them. A pepper grinder serves as a rapid-fire gun, primarily used for peppering pig snouts (I am NOT making this up) and taking down annoying aerial enemies. There is also a teapot which can be charged to shoot, well, tea grenades. These are the four primary weapons you can level up with teeth dropped from killing enemies and destroying breakables. Yes, teeth. Seriously, I am not creative enough to come up with this stuff on my own. Alice is also supplied with an umbrella used for blocking and shooting back projectiles, as well as a clockwork bunny bomb for pressure-sensitive timed plates and acting as a decoy during battle. The umbrella and bunny bomb cannot be upgraded. I wish the time bomb could have been upgraded to do more damage and last longer before automatically exploding. Using it as a decoy to distract multiple enemies came in very handy at certain points in the game.

We were disappointed in the fact that there aren’t many boss battles in this game. It is divided by chapters, 6 in total, so we assumed there’d be an epic boss battle at the end of each one. Well, spoiler, there isn’t. In fact, there’s a mean tease at the end of a chapter that makes you think you’re gonna have a huge boss fight on your hands. Then it… fizzles out. Another related complaint to the battle system is how targeting works. I’m glad targeting exists, as too many action games seem satisfied not bothering with it. However, to switch targets (which is practically essential when shooting) the right stick has to be tapped in the direction you want your target to move. Very annoying, because that also functions as your camera mover. Not two functions that should have been tied to the same command. Especially for compulsive camera fiddlers like myself.

The battle system is a straightforward, what you see is what you get deal. There’s no fancy combos to unlock or anything. Upgrade with teeth and that’s it. We had all of our weapons maxed out while still having a few hours of gameplay left, giving us nothing else to look forward to. Enemies have annoying features that force you to use a certain weapon to make them vulnerable. But if that didn’t exist you’d do nothing except button mash, so I guess I can’t complain about that. There is a Hysteria mode you can trigger when Alice’s health gets low. Think of it as like a Rage of the Gods or Devil Trigger mode. Alice does a ton of damage, moves super fast, and regenerates health. I often forgot to use it, but I had fun with it when I did.

Madness Returns incorporates some interesting puzzles and exploration tools. Remember the food and drink that made Alice grow or shrink while in Wonderland? Instead of making her eat and drink constantly, she can do it on command with the press of a button! Well, she can only shrink on command. And when she does, you have access to hidden platforms, mini keyholes to walk through, and hints scribbled on your surroundings that point to secrets or tell you where to place your clockwork bunny. There are even snouts to pepper that can only be seen with Shrink Sense! Very tricky. Finding secret passages and platforms usually brings you to teeth, bottles, or memories. Teeth are for upgrading, bottles are for unlocking artwork, and memories are quotes from other characters in Alice’s life that either shed light or confuse you even more. As you progress into the game, you’ll find yourself using Shrink Sense more and more to traverse Wonderland. If you miss a platform or die, don’t fret; the game is really forgiving of death. Alice will pop back to life a platform or two away with really no punishment for death. I could have seen myself becoming very frustrated with this game if that were not the case.

And now onto my favorite aspect of Alice, and that’s the scenery. Exploring Wonderland will fill you with a sense of twisted delight. The background and decorations can only be the imagination of a pure psychopath. And I love it. The first Chapter’s design is great. The impact is lessened in the middle chapters, but I promise if you stick with it, the Red Queen’s domain and onward will thoroughly impress. There are really random and really deranged sights to feast your eyes upon. I only wish the last few Resident Evil and Silent Hill games had imagery this powerful.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the enemy designs. Many of them are sort of bland and lose flavor after fighting them the entire game. Really cool enemy designs, like the card soldiers, only show up in one chapter. Again, having epic boss fights at the end of each chapter (or even every other) could have spiced things up. All you get are more difficult fights spaced out with a ton of ads to screw with your targeting. The final boss fight was pretty well designed as well, though it committed the same difficulty-scaling trick with the pesky enemies whose sole purpose in life is to take your auto-aim away from the big bad guy.

Personal video game pet peeves aside, I strongly recommend Alice: Madness Returns. I haven’t even played the first game and I had a great time with this, um, unique game. Play it. Play it now.

**Side note: The online PSN store only has one piece of DLC for this game. For $1.99, you can get an added ability to each weapon and SIX new outfits! Each outfit has its own properties as well. Well worth the small investment.**

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

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Jaysus, lookit dem guns!

I’ve finally completed a (somewhat thorough) playthrough of Black Flag! I don’t say “finally” as in I’m especially happy to be done with it. I say “finally” because I got the game for Christmas and it’s now a month and a half later and I’ve only finished one of the pile of games I received. Having all of a few hours a week to myself to play a video game isn’t the most conducive lifestyle for playing sandboxey games like the AC series has become. Ironically, it wasn’t until I was pregnant and playing Skyrim that I realized I enjoyed games like this. Granted, I could have absolutely bulldozed the plot, but I felt almost guilty doing so. Black Flag is so much more than the basic Sequences. In fact, if someone told me they had more fun during the overdone, lame plot missions, I’d suggest they get their head examined.

I stand at odds with how to rate this game. On one hand, the open sea beckoning me to explore its uncharted lands never got old. I found myself distracted for hours and hours of gameplay sailing around, looking for trouble. Well, mostly loot, but trouble was always closely tied to filling my purse. The Templar Hunt missions, naval contracts, forts ripe for the conquering, animus fragments and treasure chests waiting to be collected, and whales to harpoon can keep any gamer busy for countless hours. There are also animals to hunt like in ACIII, except this time around you actually have incentive to do it. Animal pelts and other hunting goods are used to upgrade the main character, Edward Kenway’s, gear. To upgrade his ship you NEED to conquer other ships and steal their booty. Awesome. And, like I said, it doesn’t really get old. I  enjoyed all of these optional features (I wouldn’t have committed like, 30+ hours of my life if I didn’t).

However, there’s always a butt. And my “butt” is, well, the rest of the game. If you’ve been with the AC series since its inception, the “trail so-and-so without being seen” and likewise missions won’t do much more for you than elicit big yawns. Then they had to go and incorporate the same stuff into the ship missions. I liked captaining the Jackdaw, but navigating a big, clunky ship when you have to try to remain hidden or sail quickly to not loose sight of another vessel is annoying. Call me a simpleton, but I’d rather stick to blowing the other ship up and killing the target on it, thanks. A new added feature to make the game feel more piratey are treasure maps! Dead cadavers throughout the world have treasure maps on them that are ripe for the picking. Each map has a crudely drawn picture of the hidden treasure’s whereabouts and the coordinates. Sounds easy enough, but I found the pictures to be pretty off sometimes, or hard to find in a big settlement area. I only got the treasures that were easy to find or gave upgrade plans for rewards.

As expected, the same old frustrating free-running mechanics exist. Enemy AI is weird and inconsistent. There are glitches abound (though I won’t pretend some of them didn’t work out in my favor). Like with every other AC game, you’ll swear at your avatar because he just won’t cooperate even though you KNOW you’re supposed to climb a certain ledge. They just like to pause mid-walk or press against a wall instead of moving for some reason, especially when guards’ detection bars are filling up and you’re supposed to remain incognito. I liked the little tweak to Eagle Vision Ubisoft incorporated. When you’re tailing a golden target, after you use Eagle Vision you can see them through walls and other barriers which is pretty useful.

The battle system is largely unchanged. You purchase or unlock swords and guns. You can create holsters, carry  more pistols, and perform devastating combos. The swordplay remains unchanged for the most part. It is a relatively simple game of waiting for the counter prompt and pressing the corresponding button, then hitting attack for a fancy insta-kill animation. Once in a while you’ll stumble upon an ‘especially’ difficult enemy that requires a Break Defense button press instead of Counter to do damage. And… that is about as complicated as swordplay gets. To make things even easier, you can toss a smoke bomb and kill 4 or 5 people while they’re hacking their lungs out. The other tools you receive are sleeping darts, berserk darts, and rope darts, which are all in good fun. The troublesome enemies you’ll come across are the stupid axe guys, only because if you let them get a hit on you because they do a ton of damage. The snipers are frustrating because if you don’t have goons to use as human shields they’ll keep popping you with bullets until you can get to them.

Okay let’s talk about the story and characters for a little bit. I often joked that most of the AC games had main characters driven by pretty similar factors: mean Templars killed someone in my family and I want revenge. Well, this time around, Edward Kenway really only cares about one thing for 75% of the game, and that’s moola. He wants money. Yeah, he says it’s to have a comfortable life with the woman he loves, but he leaves her for years on end and only writes once a year after she begs him not to go. Anyway, the only thing keeping your main character going is the prospect of more money, which is how he gets wrapped up in the entire Templar/Assassin conflict in the first place. I also have a little bit of beef with calling this an “Assassin’s Creed” game, as Edward never actually recites the creed or become inducted into the Brotherhood. Edward is pretty shallow, but predictable. I’d argue that this is the first AC game to have supporting cast that I found more engaging than the main character. You’ve got infamous Blackbeard, a former slave first mate who finds his convictions way before Edward does, and the series’ first transgender character! Very interesting cast, most of whom were way more fascinating than Edward.

The present day characters are not nearly as engrossing. For reasons you’ll learn about if you hack Abstergo’s computers, Desmond Miles is no longer with us. The new protagonist is a faceless, character-less entity who only exists to tap into the animus for me. To increase immersion, I assume, you explore Abstergo Industries in first person POV. You carry around a functional tablet; using it for opening elevators, hacking into Abstergo’s PCs for supplemental information, and probably even using the loo. Your character is a faceless Abstergo employee, never even earning themselves a name. I suppose I’m supposed to feel like it is actually me running around and diving into the animus. But no. Just, no. It didn’t do that for me. Because I would never keep my mouth shut while being bossed around by some douche without even asking why.  There are collectibles in the present day too, but they’re strange post-it notes scattered around that were clearly written by a deranged First Civilization worshiper who should’ve gotten themselves fired. I don’t know if I did something wrong but there was little to no conclusion to the present-day story arc. Basically the aforementioned douche gets what he deserves, but a couple other loose ends don’t even get mentioned or teased. I’m wondering if they plan on the next game taking place in the same building with the same main character and returning characters (like how Ezio’s arc was a trilogy) but Edward Kenway’s story seemed pretty  solidified.  Ubisoft has remained true to their pretentious formula of continuing the AC series as an annual cash cow, from the looks of it.

Annual cash cow that Assassin’s Creed has become, I’ll  admit I had way more fun playing Black Flag than ACIII. The biggest open-world exploration system to date served the series well. ACIV was my first Playstation 4 game completed. I can’t complain about the graphics, but the game had the usual glitch-fests known to the AC series. I think Ubisoft should definitely continue on the path of making bigger, better, more involved worlds, but they really need to find a way to jazz up the main story line because the formula is getting stale and I found myself dreading going back to it at times.

Spartacus, the Starz Original Series

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My husband and I finally put the nail in the cross on one of my favorite television shows ever. Spartacus, a Starz original series, has been airing since 2010, and it is one of the only shows I have followed religiously. TV isn’t something I normally get too worked up about. I usually just watch whatever my husband or others want to watch with me. Spartacus is one of the few TV shows I actively pursued on my own (in the beginning, before I got everyone else hooked). My ultimate cult classic favorite show is Xena: Warrior Princess. As it so happens, I learned Lucy Lawless (Xena) was cast in this show, as her producer husband Robert Tapert and pal Sam Raimi (both of whom worked on Xena) were producing Spartacus. And, as assumed in the title, the series is based on the legend of Spartacus, the gladiator slave of Rome who led a rebellion against the Republic. I’ve been fascinated nearly my entire life with ancient Greek and Roman culture and mythology. Overall, a win-win scenario.

Oh, and did I mention the abundance of gore and sex? Spartacus, like HBO hit series True Blood and Game of Thrones, is not bound by limitations so the writers reveled in pushing the boundaries. More than the HBO series I just mentioned… by leagues. This is polarizing to a lot of people, depending on their stomachs and tolerance of soft-core porn. Me? Didn’t bother me in the slightest.  I use video games and television to sedate my basest of interests when it comes to violence and sex. In fact, without a lot of the violence (some of the sex, but not quite so much) the series would lose a lot of its authenticity and overall rawness. Spartacus is a raw, emotional, and unpredictable show. My husband, who excels at predicting future events in television and movies, often said, “Oh my God,” or, “I wasn’t expecting that!”

I enjoy writing, reading, and language. Anyone, with or without an ear for lingual nuances, will immediately pick up on the well-written and exemplary dialogue in this series. It is poetic. The cast also delivery their lines flawlessy and make it sound completely natural to them. No awkward moments or forced lines here. Every battle cry is a scream for blood. I recognized but a few of the cast from other movies and shows, but even the unknowns acted with impressive skill.

Whenever I watch overly-intimate nude scenes I can’t help but imagine the awkwardness the actors must have felt. Yet every time they brought their A game and followed through with the actions in perfect character, whether it be a slave standing still in their birthday suit ripe for objectification by their Roman masters, or an all out sex scene. Speaking of nudity, I praise Spartacus for sticking to its claim to authenticity. The writers did not refrain from showing full frontal male nudity as well as female nudity. In a show about gladiators and slaves, you’re just as likely to see naked men as well as women, and rightfully so. Instead of using nudity as an excuse to objectify women as we so often see in most programming, they were careful to use it as a tool towards an accurate portrayal of life in a ludus or what one might see at a brothel.

The show’s namesake, Spartacus, is but one of a dozen characters with an astounding personal journey. While Spartacus transforms from unwilling slave to grief stricken revenge monger to battle commander, the stories of those around him prove to be even more fascinating. If you enjoy entertainment with diverse and well-written supporting characters, Spartacus fits the bill. The villains, while mainly Romans with political or monetary influence, were still written with interesting facets to their personality. I loved to hate some, hated loving some, and just plain hated others. My absolutely favorite Roman adversary is Ilithyia, played by the talented and beautiful Viva Bianca. Ilithyia was deliciously evil and devious, always plotting and butting heads with Lucretia (played by Lucy Lawless). The female characters are fascinating. Watching how they plot and conspire to work their magic in a patriarchal society where they are only one step above slaves was too much fun. I can’t divulge much without ruining the show… All I’ll say is that she is not above performing the most despicable acts to get what she wants. I still couldn’t help but have an immense girl crush on her.

As Spartacus’ story evolves from scheming inside of a ludus, to gladiator battles in the arena, and back and forth (a cycle that was beginning to grow stale) the series takes a violent twist to massive battle scenes in open scenery. It is all out war in the final season. The cinematography crew handled the adjustment and increased demands fluidly. The technical aspects of the show transition as seamlessly as the writing and characters. The special effects used in Spartacus suit the flavor of the show well. They mimicked the movie 300 (another one of my favorites. Surprise, surprise!) with the slow motion actions and blood spraying about. As visceral and gritty as this series is, the almost comical blood fountains from time to time take away some of the edge. Because, really, I’d need to see some proof to believe blood spouts out that far when someone gets stabbed. The 3D cameras utilized in some of the scenes in the final season completely blew me away in the midst of all these epic battles.

I’d also like to tip my hat to the costume designers. Their work with the rebel slaves’ attire when they were out on their own scavenging for clothing and supplies is great. Much of their clothing consists of layers of tattered garb. Naevia still has too much make up. But Crixus, who went from a perfectly shaved undefeated gladiator, becomes a shaggy, hairy-nippled outcast. None of the men are clean-shaven. Or clean, for that matter. I also really like Spartacus’ armor in the final season. It reflects back on a certain symbol referenced quite often in the first season.

Overall, I’m giving a big “Job Well Done” to the creative minds that contributed to this amazing series. Aside from the final season, I’ve watched every episode at least 3 times and every viewing is more enjoyable than the last. It is safe for me to say this is my new favorite television series…. but NOT safe to watch in front of your children!