Sunday, September 12, 2010

Games I've Been Playing Part #1: Of Brave Vesperia and the Inside Story

Man, do I suck or what?!?!? I said I'd like to update more, and it's been two weeks. I mean, I even had a four day weekend off from college. I wasn't lazy or anything, maybe it was just my first year of college sinking in. I dunno. In any case, here I am.

So, how's college? Well, so far I've spent much of my spare time playing games. I've been playing three in particular recently, one of which I'll be giving Impressions regarding it very soon. As for the other two, I thought I'd take the time to share my thoughts on them here and now in my new section, Games I've Been Playing.

It sounds self-explanatory. I'll just be discussing the wonderful pieces of entertainment I've been spending my spare time with and go in length about their strengths and weaknesses. Let's get started!


So I received an Xbox 360 the other month.


I'm still in shock about this. Eight years ago, being a little rabid Nintendo fanboy, I hated the Xbox. Looking back, I was just following the internet bandwagon and I obviously did no research whatsoever on my hatred. In one fond memory, some eight years ago I signed up on the forum of the long-dead website Tendobox and raged on the Xbox board about the system's suckiness. It didn't end well, but I still chuckle about it whenever it surfaces. Ah, the days of being new to the internet community...

Actually, maybe I was just really pissed at all of the Xbox/Playstation 2 fanboys labelling Nintendo games as kiddie. Remember that one, guys? Funny how it's fallen into disuse. Now it's that they've abandoned their gamers. Yeah, right.

In any case, I eventually discarded my nonsensical antagonism and actually enjoyed the console at my friend's house. I still believe the Xbox was the weakest console from last gen (in all honesty, you could find most of its library on the PS2), but it's all water under bridge now.

And through certain circumstances, I found myself in posession of its successor, the Xbox 360. Other then returning to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I honestly have let it languished in the shadows, but now it's been gaining major playtime with my third foray into the Tales series, Tales of Vesperia.

No, that shitty Tales of Symphonia sequel doesn't count.

The Tales games, developed by Namco (Pacman, Klonoa, Katamari Damacy, etc.), has been one I've been very interested in exploring. I regard Tales of Symphonia as quite possibly my favorite third-party video game of all time, and Tales of the Abyss was an inspiring piece of work in that I connected very deeply with the moral/character motivations present in its adventure (Here's one: It's never too late to learn anything!). I knew next to nothing about Vesperia, only knowing that it was on the 360 and many Tales fans were hailing it as the best in the series. It was my driving force to get the console, actually.

I nabbed the Special Edition case (the one above) off of eBay for a somewhat hefty price, but I think it was worth it. Just compare it to the regular one, it's leagues better. Plus, it's shiny and metal.

So how's the game? You know, I'll be blunt: I'm mixed about it so far.

I'll start out with what I love about it so far. The game looks absolutely gorgeous. For those not in the know, there was a technique called cel-shading that was all the rage during the previous video game generation (2001-2006). In a nutshell, it was a form of graphical rendering that made the game appear to pop out right out of a cartoon. Once scoffed at during it's inception, it eventually turned out to be a beautiful artstyle that gave games more vibrance and charm that has never been paralled since. Great examples of this include Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Viewtiful Joe, Okami, most of the home console Dragon Ball Z fighting games, and even the aforementioned Tales of Symphonia. If you ask me, I believe it was the pinnacle innovation of that era.

Tales of Vesperia makes use of this method in an especially eye-popping way. Another bit of background is that the series occasionally employs the use of anime-styled scenes during its cinematic sequences. An animated cutscene served as the intro for the game, and when I was given control of the character, I swear that I thought I was still watching it! Here's a couple of more screenshots to prove my point.

I also have to speak about the battle system, which is funner then ever. What makes Tales games so fun has always been the flashy Real-Time battles, where you can just hack and slash at your opponents with all kinds of exaggerated sword/hammer/chakram/spear/card/whatever maneuvers at your disposal. For those who wanted to go the extra mile, the game also records how many combos you can land on a baddie, which is harder then it sounds.

Maybe I'm still not all that interested in it, but I'll admit it's tempting. It is so much easier to link your ability techs (especially as the main character, Yuri Lowell) and it is so satisfying when you link three of them together. It's just spectacular. Not to mention the super fun "Fatal Strikes" and the very useful "Burst Artes" all add up to a more dynamic battlefield then in the previous Tales. It's by far the best system yet in the series and I really hope they continue to use this one as a model for future games.

..well, actually, I hope they lighten the difficulty next time. I mean, the boss battles in this game are excruciatingly hard, most notably the Gattsuo and Baitojoh monsters. Most, if not all of them, just feel plain cheap and it's incredibly frustrating.. At this point in my playthrough, it seems to have found a nice balance, though. Let's hope it stays that way.

Now, on the bad side..hmm, I'm not sure if I'd call them bad. Just things I'm really iffy about. I guess the most important thing I gotta go over is the roster of characters. Tales games have always had excellent casts, each with their own believable personalities and expanded histories, but it's a mixed pool here. In particular, I'm very fond of Karol, the exuberant young boy armed with a giant hammer (very much in constrast to his self-image), and Raven, a humorous character who frequently mentions his old age at times of danger. Princess Estelle, the female lead, is also a charming character that is dead set on learning about the world (not to mention herself) that had been sheltered from her.
Unfortunately, the rest of the band suffers. Rita, the genius mage, constantly criticizes the rest of the party and seems rather self-centered in her motives. While she has her good qualities, it gets annoying hearing her yelling at Karol and Raven for the umpteenth time. The game also builds up a friendship with her and Estelle, but it seemed to me that it was only the princess who wanted to spark an association with her. Thus, it feels really off when in a time of rescue Rita is the most vocal about getting her back.

There's also Judith, another female character who isn't really anything special. While of a separate race and has an interesting backstory/motivation, she comes off as bland thanks to the game's wayward structure (more on that later). She has her reasons for staying with the party, but it comes across as being there for the sake of being there and as a result I don't really feel an attachment to her the way I do for most of the others. She's simply just not a fun character.

Yuri, the main character, is an interesting subject. He once worked for the imperial knights, but grew heavily irritated with their customs and regulations and embarked on a journey of self-justice. I think what's most engaging about him is that while he is a friendly person that cares for his friends, he won't let the law stop him from he believes is the right thing to do. *spoilers* In a couple of seperate, chilling cinematics, he murders two corrupt government officials in cold blood because he knows that they're just going to continue fucking up the system since the government turned a blind eye to their actions and let them off easy. "Doing the right thing" seems to be this entry's main theme (as opposed to Abyss's "People can change for the better").

My problem with him though is that his motivations for his main actions aren't very strong. He sets off from the poor lower quarter of the city to retrieve a relic that controls the town's water supply, but the issue here is that this takes up the first third of the game and doesn't make for a compelling incentive for a main character (and no, heading off to warn a character we know nothing about isn't very interesting either). He eventually sets up his own guild with Karol, but the only purpose this serves, storywise, is to pretty much follow the whims of the princess's self-discovery.

*Tales of Symphonia/Abyss spoilers ahead!*

This is something I find disappointing given the great track record of previous main characters. Lloyd Irving of Symphonia witnessed horrifying discrimination and human slavery and vehemently opposed all of it. After nearly losing one of his best friends in a selfless effort to save the world, he vows to rid the world of discrimination, forced sacrifices, and exsphere manufacturing so that everyone can live their lives the way they want to. Luke fon Fabre of Abyss was a whiny, spoiled-ass noble who was concerned only for himself. But after his blind devotion to his "master" indirectly results in the deaths of thousands of people, he realizes how much of an asshole he was to everyone around him and vows to redeem himself by overcoming his true origins and, like Lloyd, combating the world's problems.

As of this writing, Yuri chases nothing even resembling those objectives, and I think this might have to do with the fragmented storyline. The other games had very defined goals with minor sidequests along the way, but here the quest spirals off into numerous paths and there is rarely an interesting objective. Go chase this guy, go meet with a dragon, stop this person. And while this is all happening, you're randomly thrust into the "save the world" gimmick, a plot point that was slowly amassed in the other two but has no sense being here given our meager objectives. A friend of mine was watching me play this game, and I honestly could not explain the plot to him because I was going through what was just filler. In other words, it goes nowhere.

And while I'm at it, the villains aren't very interesting either. At this point in my file, I believe I have met the big bad guy of the game and he's not exactly a convincing one. I'm sorry if it seems like I'm comparing things too much, but Symphonia and Abyss both relied on villains that were already established characters and surprised us by taking a complete 180 into their true personalities and motives. Here, it's a character barely mentioned and with absolutely no buildup he's randomly the game's antagonist. I don't buy it. The other villains aren't much better, and it is without question the story's weakest element.

It's not all bad, though. There have actually been some emotionally strong cinematics (mainly a few surrounding Estelle, Karol and Raven) that do tug at your heartstrings. I mean, I still am in the second segment of the game, and Tales games always seem to be separated into three parts. At this point, though, I'm very torn about the game. Believe me, I really wanted to fall in love with it like I did with the other two, but it just hasn't happened...yet

We'll see how it ends up.


Fortunately, I am incredibly positive about the next game I'm about to discuss. It was a game I received last year for Christmas, the crap I was going through at the time diminished my enjoyment of the title and I eventually put it on hold after some of the shit my brother put me through.
That game is Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story for the Nintendo DS. And I am very much enjoying it.

The third title in the Mario and Luigi RPG series arrived just around this time last year, and only now am I appreciating the true beauty of this game. Mario & Luigi games, along with the Paper Mario series and the oneshot Super Mario RPG, are very much different from regular Mario games in that you aren't hopping through a side-scrolling marathon, but instead explore the locales of the Mushroom Kingdom/neighboring countries and get yourself tangled up the kooky schemes of an original villain. Hysterical dialogue, "timed" attacks and incredibly fun casts of characters are also staples.

The plot here is, without a doubt, the oddest yet in a Nintendo game. While taking out his anger on yet another failed attempt to raid Princess Peach's Castle, Mario antagonist Bowser meets a figure who grants him a "Lucky Shroom" that is guaranteed to defeat Mario. Instead, it flies the Koopa King into a rage and, in a hypnotized state, he begins inhaling the retainers of the castle...including the Mario Bros. and the Princess! It turns out that the figure is none other then Fawful, a previous villain from the series who takes over Bowser's Castle and brainwashes his minions.

Despite being unaware of his inside guests, Bowser is not very happy about this turn of events and sets out on a quest to get it back. Meanwhile, the Bros. realize the predictament they're in, and have no choice but to work behind the scenes and aid their archenemy from within.

The game works by having you switch between the Mario Bros. and Bowser at random intervals. For example, you'll be stampeding within the game's overworld as the Koopa King, but then he'll suddenly find himself lifting an heavy object that requires the use of the Bros. stimulating his arm strength. It's amazingly seamless and neither perspective feels unnecessary.

However, I might as well come out and say it: Bowser is the real star here. Over half of your time will be spent with him, and it's often spent beating the crap out of everything in sight. Out of all his appearances yet, this is by far the most hilarious portrayal of of the big lug yet and I have busted out laughing numerous times at his total disregard for anyone else. His efforts to reclaim his home, of which include assisting a character speaking in a French dialect and participating in Wii Fit knock-offs, are some of the finest escapades yet in the series.

As usual, the writing is by far the funnest part of playing these games and you can just tell by reading the dialogue how much fun the localizers at NOA's Treehouse Branch had putting it all together. In particular, the villain Fawful was a fan-favorite of many Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga players thanks to his grammatically challenged form of speech and it is retained faithfully here, providing the funniest sequences in the game whenever he appears.

The gameplay is addictive fun and it's all thanks to the timed hits often featured in the plumber's RPGS. Say, for example, you choose to jump on a bad guy. It works, but it doesn't feel satisfying. The trick is to hit the A button right before landing an attack on a foe and you can simultaneously rack up more damage and feel the hit connect. This is also used in conjunction with dodging, in which you can leap over their attacks or even deal a counterattack. This is especially fun with Bowser, who throws punches with all of his might and breathing massive bursts of fire. And that's not to mention the immensely amusing repertoire of special attacks.

It just..all of it comes together well. I was iffy whether or not I could stomach a replay of the game, but a friend convinced me to after he finally bought a copy of the game and I gave in. I don't regret it. It feels so much better then when I first played it, and I just have this huge grin on my face whether I play it. I mean, it's a Mario game, what do you expect?

Especially in comparison to Vesperia. I really got to state the truth: I just feel like I'm playing that game for the sake of playing it and getting it over with. Here, I'm having a blast and I don't want it to end. Even though the plot is much lighter, I am endlessly charmed by the wild antics of Bowser and co. much more then Vesperia's loose plot/faint character bonding. It's just..Mario.

I guess this really goes to show you that I'll always be a Nintendo fanboy at heart.

God, I love this company. More than anything else.

In any case, a review of Bowser's Inside Story will be posted after my completion of the game. Can't wait!


There you have it.

So what's that other game I've been playing? None other then WarioWare D.I.Y, the latest entry in the WarioWare series that was released last April, but I only just got around to. Expect a big impressions post later this week!

See you then!

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