Breaking Down The Backlog IV: Saving yourself, the girl & the world

After a long hiatus… I return, after exploring ancient Nippon, a city in the sky & a teenager’s imagination.

Okami-HD-Logo1

I came to Okami not really knowing next to nothing about the game. Critically, I found that it was lauded but the public reaction was more mixed due to the story and game-play. Well, needless to say, you can chalk me up to one of those people who completely adore the thing.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the way the game looks. Everything – and I do mean everything – feels like a water colour or pastel painting come to life. There wasn’t a moment where the visuals broke or looked like the 8 year-old game it was. It just shows that TLC and a cool art style beats “ultra graphics” nine times out of ten. What impressed me most was that the game’s colour scheme shifts subtly as you go through the game. It starts off fairly grey and brown, since you are surrounded by mountains, then transforms to a luscious green, a turquoise in the lake area, a light blue when you are by the sea, until the game’s colour-scheme changes entirely when you go north where the area is covered in snow. Okami is pure eye-sex.

EYE SEX. Thanks to Gematsu

EYE SEX. Thanks to Gematsu

Some of the criticisms I saw levelled at Okami were that it is rather slow, bloated and a bit overwrought. I understand the former; there are points at the beginning of the game (and a couple of times later) where the game slowed to a crawl with all the dialogue. But I found myself invested enough in the story that I didn’t pay any attention to the fact that it had been a good five minutes since I actually played the game.

The basic story is that Amaterasu awakens from death after saving a village from ‘Orochi’ a century ago. She has returned to do it all over again. Thing is, once you do save the world from evil… the game continues by repeatedly ups the stakes until you literally destroy evil. The game is so long, I almost sympathise with those who found its length intolerable. Saying that, I had no problem because I loved the world, the combat and the writing. It can get a bit saccharine  at certain points, like how the writers facilitate Amaterasu winning in the end, but at no point did the game disappoint me with its story.

Orochi, second evillest thing ever

Orochi, second evillest thing ever

Luckily, the style and the story are bolstered by a robust combat system and puzzles that – although a bit simple and easy – kept me engaged for the 35 hours it took me to finish Okami. What the combat basically amounts to is choosing between three different types of weapons. Swords are slow and powerful, beads are fast but weak while discs are more defensive. Then continuously tap the attack button until everything dies.

It can get pretty hairy later in the game when you have to juggle enemies that require different means of attack. You do this by turning the game into a sheet of paper and painting on it with your analogue stick. For instance, a samurai crane monster requires you to slice a skull they throw in the air before they do. Doing so puts them in a state that lets you kill them quickly. The boss battles at the end of each chapter test all the skills you have learned up until then, which all good boss battles should do.

One final thing; the aforementioned puzzle system is connected to the paintbrush techniques and is the true meat of the game. At predefined points, you discover one of the 13 lost paintbrush gods that imbue in you certain abilities. These can be anything from turning night into day by drawing a sun in the sky to being able to climb up walls by drawing a line from a certain statue up a wall. I never got too stuck, but using the abilities needs a great deal of imagination and ingenuity. Okami is a game that tests you just enough to feel adept, without being too difficult;  that’s something Clover Studious (now Platinum Games) sort of fail to do these days.

So yeah, Okami is an utterly amazing game that captivated me from start to finish. I highly recommend it.

alice madness

I don’t play many platformers. Or maybe I have. The term ‘platformer’ these days means so much more than just a Mario-type video-game. I mean, Alice: Madness Returns is almost all platform sequences but is simultaneously very combat orientated.

Alice Madness Returns gets super messed up at points

Alice Madness Returns gets super messed up at points

Trouble is, the game has a rather basic combat system. Which isn’t necessary a complaint in and of itself, I wasn’t expecting Bayonetta levels of combat mechanics, but slashing up nightmarish monsters gets so damn repetitive by the end. Admittedly, it does feel good. But even when the game introduces a heavy attack (some Victorian horse-headed toy) and a very rudimentary upgrade system, the game feels mechanically similar from start to finish. Luckily, the art style and the locations make up for it lacking in other areas.

However, before I gush about how great the atmosphere Alice: Madness Returns is, I have to comment on the platforming. Much like the combat, it doesn’t change very much throughout the game. You get the ability to shrink and triple jump immediately, which is great because they are both useful… only that is it. At some point you grow to an enormous size, but that is just for one level. I was hoping it would make another appearance; I also lived in hope Alice could gain the ability to grow to reach previously unreachable platforms. That, sadly, isn’t the case. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed the playing the game, I just wish it had more depth.

Everything around the game is fantastic. The weird story of Alice simultaneously going crazy, trying to find out about how her family’s house burned down AND attempting to save Wonderland from a demonic train is conveyed with a suitable mixture of realism, whimsy and psychotically violent seriousness that leaves one constantly on edge. And the final reveal about the main villain is fantastically well done. I audibly gasped when it happened.

Another sublime element of this game is its art style. Victorian London is a horrible, grey place filled with disgusting human beings (it’s not often I hear the word “cunt” in a game!) and it all looks like a satirical cartoon from that period. You can see why Alice goes into Wonderland in order to escape her terrible existence. Speaking of Wonderland, all of the levels in the game ooze style and are based around each of the major characters of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, each of whom look incredible.

From the misty Eastern-inspired realm of the Caterpillar, the hellish industrial landscape of the Mad Hatter or the descent from a sterile castle made out of cards to the gooey innards of the Red Queen (who it turns out, is your dead sister), each level is thick with atmosphere. I do have one complaint, however – Alice is far too long. If they cut out about half an hour of content from each level, the game would be much better for it.

I finished Alice: Madness Returns a lot cooler on the game as a whole than I expected to be. It is severely flawed on a mechanical level, but the atmosphere goes a long way to make up for its shortcomings… if not the whole way.

bioshock-infinite

SPOILERS AHEAD

I consider(ed) the first Bioshock to be one of the best games I have ever played back in 2007. The setting, the combat and the story instantly appealed to me at the time. I avoided the sequel because, to be honest, I had no wish to go back to Rapture and Irrational Games weren’t making it. So Bioshock Infinite is I game I expected a lot out of when I started playing and it met those expectations admirably.

Much like all the games I played this month, Bioshock Infinite is an amazing looking game, not only from a stylistic standpoint but also a technical one. The way the light cascades through coloured glass, the over-saturated look on all of Columbia ( the city the game takes place in), the way your companion Elizabeth animates etc. And it’s not only the graphics either; the whole presentation of Bioshock Infinite is exemplary. Booker and Elizabeth’s voice acting is top-notch and the music is fantastic. It even actually plays into the almost Lynchian world Irrational created. What I mean is this: You turn a corner at the beginning of the game and you come across a barbershop quartet on a floating ship.

A technical and artistic marvel

A technical and artistic marvel

This makes thematic sense until you notice that they are singing a barbershop quartet version of God Only Knows by The Beach Boys – a song that doesn’t exist for another forty years. Much like how David Lynch zooms in on the insectile violence in Blue Velvet in an otherwise perfect American suburban environment, you quickly realise that something is very wrong in Columbia. Irrational scatter weird idiosyncrasies throughout the world and it never stops being jarring.

The combat is pretty much unchanged from Bioshock for better and for worse. It still suffers from the guns feeling a bit weak, but the act of shooting a dude in the face is perfectly adequate. What gives the combat its dynamism is the huge amount of tools you have at your disposal, including the return of plasmids; my personal favourite was the one that allowed you to summon crows to attack your enemies.

It was hilarious shooting crows from the palm of your hand, and even better when I learned that you can set those crows on fire to do extra damage. All the plasmids were useful and, more importantly, great fun to unleash. On top of that, Irrational made the places you fight much more open and improvisational since you can leap onto rails and slide around shooting at people or jump off and stab the shit out of them. Plus, Elizabeth opens miniature rips in reality to create more cover, health packs or turrets to help you.

The story that surrounds all this great gameplay and graphics is sublime… to a point. The main story, boiled right down, is Booker DeWitt – the main protagonist – is tasked to kidnap a woman from Columbia, Elizabeth, in order to clear his debt. But, once he finds her, he decides against doing that and instead tries to save her from Comstock, the main antagonist. This is as bare-bones summary as I can manage; the actual story is surprisingly deep and filled with cool little twists, like Booker actually being a war hero or Elizabeth’s complicated relationship with her parents.

Pictured: Infinite alternate realities

Pictured: Infinite alternate realities

Then the ending happens. It amounts to the game  literally showing you alternate realities and connecting Bioshock and Infinite together. Which is fine; different realities were key to the story and gameplay. What confused me was that Comstock turned out to be Booker DeWitt from an alternate reality where he accepted religion instead of walking away. I don’t understand how they can both exist in the same place at the same time. But, my confusion aside, I was left feeling very satisfied with the ending.

Overall, Bioshock Infinite blew me away. I just wish the gameplay was a bit less reiterative of the first and that the ending made complete sense. But I certainly admire the ambition of Irrational for creating such an intelligent game.

 Next up on Breaking Down The Backlog: The Witcher 2, The Last Of Us & Giants: Citizen Kabuto

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