lauantai 25. lokakuuta 2014

Monster Mash '14: The Curse Gets Worse

Halloween's approaching, and while it seemed only a few weeks ago that I had a great pace going on and that I was definitely able to do things just the way as I envisioned them and have reviews of several interesting horror- and monster-themed games, including the brand new The Evil Within, online by October 31st, now it's almost certain that it isn't going to happen. You see, I must have a curse or something. Halloween's a time for curses and witchcraft and all that, but this is ridiculous - this is the second year in a row that a Monster Mash has gone to hell. However, I refuse it to let it go all the way down to the ninth plane - it will continue to the planned end, just not on schedule. I'll have to come up with something else for Hallow's Eve.

For the past two weeks, my back's been killing me. I can neither stand up, or sit down properly. The pain (or occasional numbness) shifts between my upper and lower back, and even my neck, making it hard for me AND the doctors to pinpoint the actual cause, or the cure, whether it's just an acute deficiency of [insert medical mumbo-jumbo here] or if I'm really in need of physiotherapy. I've been using up all the physical energy and strength I have to be able to do my job at the highest possible efficiency. Just the thought of sitting at the computer for more than 30 minutes, even if it's positioned on my lap, has been the last thing on my mind lately. Right now I feel I'm getting a little better. I've stretched, worked out, done everything I can to get back in shape for any everyday function.

That being said, I believe I can squeeze out a review or two next week, in time for Halloween, but the Monster Mash will carry on for a while after that, I really don't want to skip any of the games on the list, least of all The Evil Within, of which I'm sure I'll be able to whip up a very interesting review as my initial take on it was quite mixed. We'll see what I'll come up on Halloween as a substitute.

'Til then.

tiistai 14. lokakuuta 2014

REVIEW - The Addams Family | GB | 1992

GENRE(S): Platformer
RELEASED: January 1992
AVAILABLE ON: GB
DEVELOPER(S): Ocean Software
PUBLISHER(S): Ocean Software

Back to the family - seemingly for the last time - to check out a couple of odd handheld games based on Charles Addams' strange and very macabre, but surprisingly functional comic book family, or more precisely, Barry Sonnenfeld's 1991 film adaptation. Five different versions of the video game license were produced, of which I've already done two. The third and last one I have access to, at least at the moment, is the Game Boy-exclusive iteration, which was among the first, if not THE first Addams Family game directly based on the film. It's very similar to its NES and SNES counterparts, but it has its own quirks. Terrible ones, but the game is not utterly unplayable as a whole. In that sense, it also follows the Addams Family video game code.

Black, white and kooky

The Addams family has been evicted from their mansion by the devious lawyer Tully Alford and goes missing while attempting to re-negotiate with the man - with the exception of the family's eccentric patriarch Gomez, who heads back to the mansion to save his loved ones. The more danger and death awaits him, the better - he was getting bored anyway.

Though I've never had too much fun with any Addams Family-related game, I feel a certain sort of giddiness every time I take on one or two games in a franchise I started dissecting back in the earliest days of this blog. It always bedazzles me when I think how much time has passed and how much everything's changed during that time, in many senses. Can't say I believed or even dared to hope that my fast judgement towards these games would've changed, or that an Addams Family game on a Game Boy would be any better than any of the games I've played on the NES or SNES, but I guess I hoped it to be decent; although mediocre all the way, the Addams Family games I've reviewed this far have been far from the bottom end. The Addams Family on the Game Boy is, as I feared, the worst iteration of the first film's license I've played thus far - but, as I hoped, it's not an utterly unplayable game, just even less playable than the big boys.

Teddy gone bad. Nice shadow.
The game looks the ugliest of 'em all, which is kinda obvious, but really, there's no explaining the emptiness of the backgrounds when gameplay's still compromised with the Game Boy's usual problems. The presentation is so off-key it hurts; the boss design is the most ridiculous out of all the games, and Gomez looks more like Marlon Brando in The Godfather than the sleek Addams patriarch played by Raul Julia. "Kiss the ring." Surprisingly diverse music, though, especially on this platform - I was expecting a maximum of three different tunes. It's nothing special, but I gotta tip my invisible hat to the game having at least one over the bigger releases.

Like the NES and SNES releases, The Addams Family is an open-world platformer - which sounds much cooler than it actually is. There's a certain pattern you must follow to simply be able to beat the game - the open-world schematic is for children that are small enough to not care whether they're able to beat the game or not. To us children who are grown up a little, it's a fuck to hack through a long, repetitive level just to get impaled by the fact that the only weapon in your inventory does not work at all on the boss, and at that point, the only way to exit the situation is to intentionally rally for a Game Over, as you're stuck on the boss you can't beat as long as you have lives left. Well, at least the checkpoint system works, huh? ...No smart-ass comment here, it really does. It's just the wrong time and place for a decent system.

Devil went down to the Boiler
Room.
Every time you beat a boss, you save one of the family members, and gain a new weapon. Jumping on enemies doesn't always work and when it does - it's really quite random, there's no distinction between enemies you can or can't jump on - it merely stuns them and you need a weapon with its own power meter to really dispose of 'em. Generally you should just dodge the enemies and save your weapon meter for the boss fights. The weapons are split up into two categories: shit and shitter, also known as ranged and melee, in that order. Whenever you get hit, you start flashing like in any old platformer - except in boss fights where you take continual damage as long as you remain in contact with the boss - but occasionally the flash stops you from moving, and your weapons stop working. Projectiles can actually disappear into thin air in mid-screen, and melee weapons are just simply useless, their range is less than pathetic. Wait 'til you get to the swimming part to get a true feel of how mediocre the gameplay is. Gomez doesn't actually even swim, he merely floats, and you have to use the digital pad to keep him off instantly lethal hazards. It's even way worse than it sounds.

"These games are hardly spooky, but I guess they're kinda kooky / they're altogether ooky, the Addams family!" This is me finding my inner poet at 5 A.M.. The Addams Family on the Game Boy is indeed thus far the most hopeless case in the surprisingly long line of different games based on the first film, but not from the most unplayable end of the whole franchise. I'd take this one's mediocrity over the utter pile that is Fester's Quest any day. That's the biggest compliment I can give it, and it's not even a very light one in my view.

UPS
+ Hmm... generally harmless?
+ A fair checkpoint system, technically speaking

DOWNS
- Looks the least legit out of the many different games under the same title
- The controls and gameplay, most of all underwater

< 4.9 >

perjantai 10. lokakuuta 2014

REVIEW - Chiller | NES | 1990

GENRE(S): Shooter
RELEASED: 1986 (Arcade)
AVAILABLE ON: ARC, NES
DEVELOPER(S): Exidy
PUBLISHER(S): Exidy, American Game Cartridges (NES)

Now here's a game I've wanted to add to the Monster Mash for ages; it's definitely not good, but it fits the usual bill perfectly as it is one of the most intentionally distasteful horror-themed games ever made. Chiller was first released in the arcades in 1986, after several modifications to the very thin "plot". Nobody rightly knew where arcade veterans Exidy were going with this game - some believed they were intentionally rallying for bankruptcy. The early 90's were the golden era of unlicensed NES cartridges, made by a few American companies as inspired by Tengen's success in the field of unlicensed NES games in the 80's. American Game Cartridges was one of the "biggest names" in the field and in 1990, they delivered an 8-bit port of Chiller, which was kinda interesting since it actually supported the Nintendo Zapper despite being an unauthorized release. No one in the right mind would've ever expected Chiller to turn up on the NES as it was in the arcades; even as an unlicensed game, it went through some heavy censorship. ...But it's still quite revolting. Let's have a look: this might not be a long review, but it's something that absolutely has to be done.

The only way to exit is going piece by piece

Here's the plot as described on the box: a medieval castle has been invaded by some evil force which is causing the dead to rise from their graves, and you play the role of a poor man's ghostbuster who's been tasked with collecting the 32 talismans of the castle and stop the undead uprising.

Do not worry, I've come to save you! ...Oh, wait.
No I haven't.
Here's the plot as it really is: you're a sick puppy with a penchant for not just killing zombies, but torturing and slaughtering utterly defenseless people. No use in just simply tearing them limb from limb with your "gun" - whatever that is - as it takes so much time. Time is short, and creativity is "rewarded".

Oh, dear Lord. The title of the game paints a picture of a very standard, somewhat comedic b-horror game - not far apart from the original Castlevania, Monster Party or even Ghoul School. Sorry for mentioning Castlevania in this context, but it did come out around the same time as the original Chiller. The box art for the NES game supports this assumption, looking like a poster for an 80's horror comedy, graced with the tag line "Dead People Are Cool". That tag gets a whole new meaning once you start the game. Let's make it clear at this point that I'm not that disgusted by the game, I'm just wondering what the hell went on in the developers' minds.

In terms of the amount of content, Chiller is a throwback to classic arcade - it only has four levels, looped over and over, and they get harder each time, with more required targets and a tighter time limit. However, unlike other arcade games built like this, you can "beat" Chiller by shooting out special items or just some random bundles of pixels in each of the levels - 32 in all - to gain talismans. You see all the talismans you've gathered and the targets you've missed during the whole game in the level start screen. Now some of these "talismans" are indeed some background details, or some easily missable stuff amidst the "excitement", such as a rat randomly running across the level floor, Some of them are something completely different.

You guys having a party in here? (Notice how
calm they are?)
After the first two levels, you're in the mindset that you're indeed a good guy, some glorious hunter of the supernatural, but the next two levels spill the truth. First off, you're at an underground dungeon with a river of blood running through it. There are no ghosts or zombies around, just three innocent people tied up in torture racks, one guy chained to the floor, one guy hanging from the ceiling and one guy who's apparently come to rescue these people, lurking in the doorway. Yep, you're actually supposed to kill the shit out of these people. Shoot that last guy too, to avoid disturbances. You can't take damage from anything in the game, but the time limit in conjunction with the required targets is very strict. Bonus targets like that wannabe hero over there gain you an advantage over that limit. There are a couple of ways you can do this, you can either use the torture racks to rip those people apart or just simply shoot their bodies to unrecognizable shapes with your... yeah, what is that, really?!

Anyway, the next level, the last one, is even worse in terms of taste, as it brings a few more people into the mix, really close up - including a naked young lady strapped into a full-body gutting device, another into a guillotine, and one guy's literally got his head in a vice. Once again you can just blast your way through this last level, or get creative with your sick mind and get both of those vice and guillotine running for starters. How utterly exciting... not nearly as exciting as being taken back to the beginning of the game to hunt for the missing talismans, though. And the circle goes on and on and on, until you power off. Which is something like ten minutes into the game at the most.

Unlicensed NES games were rarely half decent, and never very creative. If Chiller is one of the most interesting unlicensed titles out there, things were not well in that field - even if my "interest" in Chiller has nothing to do with quality or creativity, it's about testing the limits. I appreciate that in a certain way. It's a fun game to SEE running on an NES, that's all there is to it.

UPS
+ You know, I really can't come up with anything useful

DOWNS
- Same as above; it's obvious how bad the game is

< 2.0 >

REVIEW - Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor | PS4 | 2014

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure
RELEASED: September 30, 2014 (PC)
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Monolith Productions, Behaviour Interactive (PS3, Xbox 360)
PUBLISHER(S): Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The Monster Mash continues with a game that's not thematically quite what you'd expect from it, but a game that just happened to have its release date on consoles slated for now and, well, it's 99% about mashing monstrous beings, and finally, it's a game all you've geeks been waiting for all year long. Back in late 2013, an employee of Monolith Productions - who were responsible for the fairly successful downloadable MMO Guardians of Middle-earth, released in conjunction with the first Hobbit film - leaked information of a huge third-person action/adventure game set in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, more specifically the shadowland of Mordor. Throughout the rest of the year and this far into 2014, the game was one of the most outspoken titles in the gaming media, as well as among the Tolkien fanbase, who have very rarely been graced with a half-decent game featuring their much-cherished lore. The game, written by Red Dead Redemption co-writer and designer Christian Cantamessa, tells a whole new tale loosely set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Some old acquaintances, a whole troop of new ones, and a lot of dying orcs - in the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie.

No stranger to danger, this ranger

STARRING
Troy Baker : Talion
Alastair Duncan : Celebrimbor
Abigail Marlowe : Lithariel
Claudia Black : Queen Marwen
Adam Croasdell : Torvin
Nolan North : The Black Hand of Sauron
Travis Willingham : Hirgon / Nemesis Orcs
Emily O'Brien : Eryn
JB Blanc : Tower of Sauron
Liam O'Brien : Gollum

Talion, a ranger captain from Gondor stationed at the Black Gate, is brutally slaughtered along with his wife and son as part of some blood ritual, courtesy of the Black Captains of Sauron and the Dark Lord's Uruk forces. Talion's mind and body merge with a mysterious wraith, who has no recollection of his life, nor supposedly much idea as to why they are "cursed" together this way. Kept alive and granted inhuman talents by the spirit within him, Talion starts an epic quest through the lands of Mordor to destroy Sauron's army and exact revenge on the Dark Lord.

Mordor's huge.
I've never been much of a sucker for traditional fantasy as I've mentioned a few times before. No, I wasn't going to say The Lord of the Rings is any different, after all it's the gold standard for such fiction. I didn't know a hell of a lot more than the basics of The Lord of the Rings when I went to see the first film with my best friend back in 2001, just to keep him company, and well, it was such a hyped flick that I guess I needed to see what all the fuss was about. The rest is history; Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy is some of the best cinema ever made, and The Hobbit started out just as great, didn't enjoy the second film quite as much though. I got infatuated with the lore so much that I broke out of my no-reading, just-writing mold not long after seeing The Return of the King, and read all of Tolkien's books carefully, from cover to cover, "humbly" starting with the gigantic tale that is The Lord of the Rings.

My actual hands-on history with games based on Middle-earth is a much shorter tale than everything I've read about any Tolkien game ever made, and judging by what I've read, I haven't missed a lot. I used to have The Fellowship of the Ring on the PlayStation 2 - based on the book rather than the film although it was promoted as official movie merchandise - and that game sucked. I also suffered through a lot more of The Lord of the Rings on the SNES than it was good for - in other words about 20 minutes. The movie tie-ins to The Two Towers and The Return of the King were pretty good, I hear; I've only played Return on the Game Boy Advance and even the handheld game had some good stuff in it, so I can't help but believe it. Alas, all of this is good material for a possible Tolkien marathon (I was going to do that to hype this game, if the schedules had matched a bit better), so let's not let it go to waste. Let's see what Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is all about.

Storywise, it goes both ways. Those not too keen into details might find the story amazing, especially since it's basically written and acted so well (Troy Baker, Nolan North & Co.), but I can almost hear the girly cries of true fanboys when it comes to some plot twists, including the ending which has already spurred up some loud gripes in the community, and the plot outline itself, as the Middle-earth legendarium does not generally support life after death. Some might think overturning everything we've learned about Middle-earth so far is even worse than overturning Star Wars. I think the game's tied between these two when it comes to the severity of the consequences. Yet, the developers have (more or less) clearly stated that they wanted to expand the universe and not to think of the official Middle-earth timeline too much, otherwise they wouldn't have been able to deliver such a powerful gaming experience or a game as clearly apart from the two major trilogies in mind, body and spirit. They also didn't want to overutilize familiar characters regardless of how much money they'd made, instead they settled on less relevant cameos and new representatives of the most essential races to not piss on the original characters' legacies too much. Fair enough, I think; smart, too, very much like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The tone is set very apart from Tolkien's actual works; this is Mordor, and as you know, Mordor is very, very dark. There are no singing, dancing, weed-smoking hobbits here, and even elves aren't that pretty - the only one essential to the plot has scars all over his ghostly face. The dwarven hunter Torvin and the opportunistic Uruk grunt Ratbag add some humour to the mix, but even they have their dark key moments. All in all, I think the game introduces a small, but capable host of characters, and it goes without saying that any time a Hobbit or Lord of the Rings or Silmarillion character steps on the screen, it's showtime in the fanboy's ballroom, even if it lasts for 30 seconds at a time, at the most.

Takra here didn't do his job very well.
As a game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor hits you like a ton of bricks in the start, and not in a good way, at least not as far as I'm concerned. New abilities and features are introduced at an extremely rapid, uncontrollable pace, and every single one of them has shamelessly been ripped off from another game - so even if it's uncontrollable, it's almost immediately accessible to anyone who's played game X. The HUD and GPS map, even Talion's death-defying jump out of the appointed checkpoint tower are straight out of Assassin's Creed, more specifically Black Flag, while the story has a lot in common with Assassin's Creed II. There are some things that point to Red Dead Redemption, such as the ambient challenges spread through the world, and the rest of it comes straight from the Arkham series. There's a counterpart for almost every single special ability in one or more Arkham games, and the combat system is pure Batman. After making some progress, you'll start to realize that these things I just mentioned are nothing but beneficial for the game - and when it comes to combat, it might just be that Middle-earth's BETTER than Batman. In that one, single, but extremely important area. Make no mistake about it - Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is very likely a very slow hook if you've spent a good part of the last 13 years playing every major sandbox game out there. But when it hits, it hits hard - it's almost just as good as anyone expected, and you'll most definitely get more for your money than you did with Watch_Dogs some months ago - a game I still haven't had the energy to run through, while I ran through this one in four days.

Prior to the game's release I was under the impression that the game's audiovisual department was supervised by many people involved with adaptations of Tolkien's literature all the way from games to theatre, and with the actual product in hand, I am certain of it. Middle-earth is a gorgeous game that against all expectations does introduce us to a lighter, greener side of Mordor never spoken of before. So, it's not all dark, bleak and smoky, and without its distinctive landmarks aside from the Black Gate and Mt. Doom - actually, you can't even go to Mt. Doom, it's just mentioned in dialogue a few times which was kind of a disappointment. The level design is absolutely perfect - although the world might do well to have a few more of true landmarks or sights apart from the campaign, the levels are designed perfectly from a gamer's point of view.

Open your mind. I know there's not a lot to see
there, but hopefully enough.
There are a lot of ways to go at certain missions, especially once you've upgraded your talents to the max; the levels are designed with dozens of possibilities for your creative mind to consume. It's all about your preference: fight, flight, or staying out of sight. Everything works, and I'm personally glad to be granted the choice of switching between these styles at a steady pace, whereas I was disappointed with the repetitive bush-to-bush stealth missions in the otherwise great Assassin's Creed IV, where being exposed meant mission failure. Being exposed in Middle-earth rarely spells out mission failure directly, but it can get you into a heap of trouble which is hard to escape from. And if you can't escape, bad things happen. Many games nowadays prompt you with changing to an easier difficulty if you die - not only does Middle-earth have just one single difficulty setting, things only get HARDER for you if you die. You'll soon find out how and why, and why the game rocks so hard.

Rocking hard brings me to Garry Schyman's (BioShock) music, which is extremely influenced by Howard Shore's scores for Peter Jackson's films, but once again, since the tone of the game lacks those calm and light moments of clarity ("oh, Sam!"), it's generally more action-oriented all the way, should I say pretty heavy! The sound of those battle drums when you're heading into your final confrontation at the very least has Helm's Deep written all over it. As a matter of fact, it's probably the most plausible adaptation of a good old-fashioned Middle-earth brawl you've ever seen in a video game, if you're not looking at the numbers too much. Remember, there's only so much a game can handle. Or your thumbs. One more cheer for the absolutely perfect voiceover work, and the mocaps as well; Troy Baker pulls another perfect role as Talion, hard to rank specifically when the guy's already got Joel in The Last of Us and the Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins under his belt. The silver award goes to small-time TV actor Adam Croasdell as Torvin, and the bronze to Liam O'Brien (yep, who I last called typecast as an asshole!), who pulls the best Andy Serkis impersonation as Gollum, depicted just as he is in the Jackson films, bringing the game even closer to the films, in other words what I consider home.

The baseline is this: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open-world game with two separate maps, the second of which becomes available to you at the halfway mark of the story, and it's sized about the same as the already fairly large world you see before you in the beginning of the game. Like in the last two Batman games and in Assassin's Creed from the start, strategically placed Forge Towers unlock new areas on the map and reveal their secrets and side missions, which come in remarkable amounts. Unlike in every open-world game (you're free to debate with me on this one) except for Bethesda's RPG's, the side missions make the game, not the story. The moments the story has have nothing on the side missions, they offer you so much more liberty to do things your way than the story which sometimes feels shallow, and a little too scripted. For example, the Outcast missions which require you to save a set amount of human slaves under different predicaments do give you a bonus objective (a small EXP bonus) to accomplish just like any other mission, but basically you can go at 'em just the way you want to - just as long as those slaves are rescued. There's a time limit to few of the missions, but very few of them; I spent an hour on one of the missions even though there were just three slaves to save. I carefully planned the whole rescue out and then went on to pick off all the enemies one by one, never being seen, before actually getting to (and just remembering!) what I was supposed to do. Killing those orcs is just so fun that you don't even care about your mission - as long as it involves the opportunity to shed some muddy blood. And do it VERY violently.

What, again...? Oh well, it IS just that fun.
You can upgrade your three weapons (sword, bow, dagger), all of which have their unique qualities and side missions, with runes dropped by strong enemies such as bosses, and superior officers of Sauron's orc army. Talion's abilities are upgraded in two different skill trees: the Ranger and the Wraith. The Ranger abilities add to Talion's basic sword tactics and traits, while the Wraith abilities spice combat up with the ever-increasing supernatural powers of the spirit inside him. More tiers for the abilities are unlocked with Power Points, which you get from meddling in your stronger enemies' direct affairs clearly marked as side missions on the map (or simply hunting them down outside missions), and gaining certain amounts of EXP grants you Ability Points to use on the unlocked abilities. Some abilities are unlockable only by making progress in the storyline; even many side missions are completely locked off until you get an ability that is often not actually required to accomplish your task, but they usually make those missions much more enjoyable. I like that. Mirian is a currency you gain alongside EXP, used to unlock attribute upgrades, for health, "bullet time", capacity and such. It sounds so much more complex than it actually is, and even feels like it at first. It's a slow hook, just like I said. The next bit's the most complex part of Middle-earth, but also the coolest.

About 95% of the game's enemy cavalcade consists of orcs (or the Uruk), but calling the enemy design boring couldn't be further from the truth. The one unique aspect to Middle-earth is the Nemesis system. Fighting a large group of orcs or otherwise causing a major disturbance might lure in an orc captain. These sons of bitches have their own sets of tactics, weaknesses and strengths. You can find out all of these by interrogating certain grunts marked with a green icon (yep, the Riddler informants from Batman). By knowing your enemy, you can greatly turn the battle to your favour. For example, if a captain is marked as having a fear of Caragors, and you have the ability to ride one of these beasts, or if a Caragor cage is placed close to wherever you find the bastard, you can either ride to battle with a Caragor to scare the guy shitless and greatly lower his odds, or shoot out the lock of the cage and let the beast do more than half of the work for you on both the captain and his henchmen before jumping down and cutting off his head to seal the deal. You gain Power, and with Power you are one step closer to unleashing your full potential and conquering Sauron's army of uglies.

...But, in Middle-earth it works both ways. ANY Uruk that kills you might be promoted to captain. If the captain has YOUR number, he grows in Power, maybe even rank as I said, and the next time you see him, he might well be much stronger and more educated; the same tricks might not work on him anymore, at least not as well as they did before. As the name of the Nemesis system points out, some of these guys might go on to pester you repeatedly, at the slightest opportunity they get; especially those ones you've defeated, but who have also defeated you. It's like a wrestling rivalry. The funny thing is that even if you've even decapitated them several times, they still keep coming back, but well... you're dead and you're coming back all the time, ain't ya? Still, it's a little disturbing. Some of the guys won't even kill you. They just leave you for dead, especially on the second half of the game, after a verbal assault on your testicular fortitude which hurts even more than a knife through the heart if you're undead. There are so many different enemy behaviours I won't even start listing them all. One other thing I dare not touch is a complete list of all the things you can do to fuck with Sauron through his army, but one of them, I must. 'Cause depending on how keen you are on the advanced military management beyond the confines of the storyline, it can carry this game for months to come, no matter how easy it is to complete.

Thrown into a bullpen with 50 bloodthirsty orcs?
Count me in!
Near the end of the storyline, you'll gain one of the coolest abilities ever created for a video game, and slowly discovering all the things you can do with it will blow your freaking mind. OK, so what you've got to know first, is that there are grunts and captains in the Uruk army, but also warchiefs and their personal bodyguards (comprised of captains). If you go straight for a head-on fight with a warchief, especially one who has just one of your arch enemies as his bodyguard, you're toast. Regardless of your upgrades, and regardless of how well you've planned out the showdown, you're in for the fight of your life. The Brand ability tips the scale to your favour; instead of simply killing a bodyguard while he's out on his own, separate from his master, you also have the opportunity to brainwash him once he's weak enough in both mind and body. A warchief with a total of five bodyguards, even better. Hunt down and brainwash all five, head to the showdown and activate their possessed minds, and watch the shit hit the fan. Anyone who strikes the fatal blow is the new warchief, and his troops at your command as long as you keep him as your puppet. Or, you can brainwash any low-level captain and gradually help him become a warchief, through the very same missions you went on to simply fuck with them - this time, you're fighting for them, not against them. Or brand existing warchiefs. Or send a high-level orc captain on a mission of his own to assassinate a warchief - if he gets his head cut off, big deal. At least you're in the clear. I make it all sound so simple here; it's an extremely deep, complex, but magnificent system once you learn it. Like in so many games, you won't learn anything by reading all of this from a tutorial or an instruction manual (as if modern games had instruction manuals, God damn it), but actually doing stuff. If you're feeling uncomfortable with the system, I must say so did I at first, as I did with the whole game, but it's extremely fun, believe me.

One thing Middle-earth is not, though, is the most replayable game on Earth, and for a true sandbox veteran (and addict) it's not much of a challenge. It's extremely easy to reach 100% completion, 'cause unlike in Assassin's Creed, the bonus objectives only grant you that small EXP bonus; completing them does not count to the 100%. I completed the game to 100% with my Trophy count at a whopping 90% in just four days. The games which most influenced Middle-earth, such as Assassin's Creed, Red Dead Redemption and Batman all had something they could deliver beyond a full completion. A more interesting story, a more interesting and distinct world, more substantial rewards for hard work, collectables and even easter eggs which were actually hidden. The always fiery and feisty basic combat, and especially the Nemesis system offer you a good, fun challenge, as long as you can take it - you can carry on forever dabbling with it if you want - but as far as other forms of open-world adventuring go, Middle-earth is a little too open and obvious from the start, and once you're done, you're done. There simply ain't nothing besides taking advantage of your cheap military tactics. Again, it's fun, though. But for how long, that I don't know. It all depends on you.

I'll have to publicly get back on this subject at my earliest convenience - which is probably not that early - but I think it's safe to assume, for now, that Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is the best Middle-earth game ever made. It has its flaws, and apart from the innovative, unique and simply amazing rivalry, enemy development and military management system all tied up into one, all the best parts of the game come from elsewhere - but at least this particular region of elsewhere is a whole bulk of some of the best open-world action games in the world. Even if you're not a Tolkien fan, you should check the game out - or like some might say, especially in that case.

UPS
+ The graphics and surround sound are magnificent; this is the first time I actually fear for the upcoming PS3 and Xbox 360 versions
+ Impossible brutality
+ "Unique" and "deep" are understatements when it comes to the Nemesis rivalry system
+ Side missions with similar goals are always different from each other in content, and you can often go at them in any of the three main ways; melee, ranged, or stealth
+ The freeflow combat system from the Arkham series is polished to pure perfection here; it's rarely been this fun to kill (literally) thousands of orcs - wait... it's NEVER been this fun!
+ An incredibly well acted game...

DOWNS
- ...Considering that the story itself is a bit shallow, and not such a perfect fit for Tolkien fans as was expected
- A little too open and obvious, which leads to the next one
- Beating the game to 100% - including most of the Trophy/Achievement collection - takes time, and nothing else
- The HUD straight out from Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is still what it was back then: cramped
- You can never immediately retry a failed side mission, instead you always have to make your way back to the starting point; this is honestly the most annoying thing about the whole game, and there is absolutely no reasonable explanation for it

< 8.9 >

torstai 2. lokakuuta 2014

REVIEW - Sweet Home | NES | 1989

GENRE(S): Survival horror / RPG
RELEASED: December 15, 1989
AVAILABLE ON: NES
DEVELOPER(S): Capcom
PUBLISHER(S): Capcom

Time to kick off this year's Monster Mash, and there simply ain't no game more suitable for the task than this little Japanese, Capcom-made curiosity considered the very first survival horror game ever made. In early 1989, Japanese film director Kiyoshi Kurosawa - no relation to Akira - made a horror film named Sweet Home. Later that year, he closely collaborated with Capcom, more specifically Ghosts 'n Goblins and Mega Man producer Tokuro Fujiwara to make a video game adaptation of the film. The game was considered ingenious and extremely innovative, no less than one of the best Famicom games made at that time, but a Western release of the game would've required some serious compromises regarding its brutality, which the designers were not willing to make. Sweet Home remained a cult title in Japan and received its first share of international fame seven years after its release, when Shinji Mikami - a huge fan of the game - designed a certain spiritual successor to the game, which went on to popularize survival horror all around the world. How could Sweet Home NOT boggle the interest of a lifelong Resident Evil fan? Well, it is written in Japanese... but of course, that's not much of an obstacle for modern technology. Let's go.

No place like home, huh?

Come on man, it's just a legless zombie.
A film crew consisting of five people travels to an abandoned mansion once owned by the famous, late artist Ichiro Mamiya, in hopes of finding his unreleased paintings and using them to make the best art documentary ever. However, as the crew enters the mansion, the entryway collapses, and it becomes clear that the mansion is quite littered with the undead, including a poltergeist in the guise of Mamiya himself. A boring art documentary turns into something way more exciting as the group struggles to escape this house of death.

The idea for Monster Mash started with Resident Evil. My whole infatuation with survival horror started with Resident Evil, way back when it was released in Europe. Well, since this time there ain't no Resident Evil game to pop into my mind for a review (I'm not that far into Resident Evil: Revelations and the sequel is coming soon anyway, so let's save it for a later date), let's set our sights on a Famicom game that has had its name all over every Internet publication ever made regarding the early history of Resident Evil. 'Til just a brief while back, the game was, and had always been exclusive to Japan. Nearly two years ago, this guy I know bought a highly expensive "redux" retail version of the game from a now-defunct American company that remade all sorts of NES and SNES games note by note, but their most important and popular products were, of course, translated versions of games previously released only in Japan; I got myself a fancy-ass redux of Final Fantasy III just before they closed their doors. Well, I'm not exactly in speaking terms with that guy right now, so I couldn't ask him to borrow the game, but I thought that if there's a translated retail version of Sweet Home out there, there's gotta be a ROM available on the net. I was quite right in my assumption; there is, and it's seamless, unlike many fan-made dejaps I've played thus far. I headed into this book of genesis with my hopes set far too high, and came out with the following conclusion: the user interface of Sweet Home may be severely outdated, but God DAYMNNN, the game has fantastic ideas. Had I "discovered" the game just a decade or so ago, it would've left an even better impression on me.

I think I once saw these gals on Doctor Who.
Ever played any 8-bit role-playing game, like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest? Good, you know exactly how Sweet Home looks like, then. It's just got more blood and gore. The game is generally played from a top-down view, while the random encounters are in 3D, just like in Dragon Quest; however, there are also some random events for the horror's sake which present themselves in 3D, like chandeliers spontaneously falling down from ceilings and previously locked doors slowly opening (very Resident Evil-like, as you will see). It's all quite damn cool, and if you fail to figure it out before, check out the death animations to see why Nintendo of America hated this game.

Back in its time, Sweet Home was probably one of the most complex games ever made - but someone who has played any sort of puzzle-oriented adventure games most of his life will find the basics very accessible, even if the game's obsolete interface is tough on the nerves. More on that later, let's go over the basics first. You play as five different characters, all with their special tools. None of them are considered the "main" character, 'cause absolutely any or all of them may die during the course of the game. A rare case of permadeath, that is; they won't be coming back, or their valuable tools. Not to worry, though; replacements for all tools are found scattered around the mansion, so basically the game cannot conclude in an unwinnable state. Also, anyone can use standard items such as Tonics, it's not prohibited to the "medic" although it looks like it at first; the medic is the only person who can heal status ailments, though, and if she dies, you'll need to find an endless supply of pills to replace her medical kit. Yes, this game was made in 1989. Think about that.

This hallway's almost 1:1 with a certain Resident
Evil
hallway. Without dogs, though.
Kazuo is the director, and his tool is the lighter, used to set stuff on fire. Go figure. Emi is his daughter, equipped with a master key of sorts that opens most doors in the mansion. Taro is the photographer, needed for many puzzles due to his "all-revealing" camera, as is Asuka, who's an art restorer equipped with a vacuum cleaner. Finally, Akiko's that medic, although officially she's just the producer, just hanging around the rest of the crew - I guess they needed her to have a specific role in the game, 'cause she was such an important character in the film. You can change the party at any time to a maximum of three; due to there being just five members, one party is always at a disadvantage. Even if you manage to keep the parties close to each other all the time and available for each other's aid in combat, progress in the game turns extremely tough just 15-20 minutes into it. There's that threat of permadeath looming all the time, you can never predict the challenge the enemies in the next room might provide, and there are just that few Tonics to go around towards the end. They are the only way to replenish your health and pray points; in good news, they cure everyone at once. Praying is used for lots of things on the field, in combat it does devastating damage to those unholy beings you're fighting. ...I'll try that the next time I go head to head with my boss.

That's pretty much the game in a nutshell, so let's move on to the crummy interface and other stupidities you will most definitely come across. The good news is that Sweet Home has the quickest battles out of the short array of 8-bit RPG's - the loading times are unnoticeable, command response is extremely quick and provided you're properly equipped, meaning that you have at least SOMETHING equipped, your attacks actually have effect, and missing a hit is very rare. Groups of enemies are considered one, so it's also impossible to miss a hit due to attacking an already fallen enemy (so basically: fuck you, Final Fantasy). Field work, now that's tedious. You can't just pick up items by facing them and pressing a button, or there's not even a screen that comes up for a Yes / No choice like in the successor. Oh, no, in this one you need to face the item you want, very precisely at that, go to the menu and manually assign the item to a party member to a specific slot. If you choose the wrong one, you'll have to do it again. Any item you had there will take the new item's place on the field.

Damn, man, you really got beat up by that lamp.
Forming parties is even more of an annoyance. If you want to make a complete shuffle, as you probably will after getting to know the ins and outs of the game a little, you have to detach members from the group one by one by talking to them, using a specific command, until they've all split up and are free for choosing. After all that other hassle with the menu, you can't do THIS in the menu. It's ridiculous. What's also annoying, let's assume you've just used your "combat party" to work your way through the worst series of hallways and rooms in the whole game, when you suddenly bump into an obstacle that only a member in the weaker group - and probably the lesser group in terms of numbers - can do something about. You then need to conquer the same stretch with that other group. Now that's tough. And you'll probably die. Then again, strategizing your way out of these sorts of situations is seen as one of the game's strengths and innovations. People view the game's features differently - some might even say it's easier once two members of the party are dead, 'cause you don't have to worry about that excess luggage anymore, just the replacement of their tools. One thing the game'll never be is easy, regardless of how you go at it.

Sweet Home's probably the earliest, and for many years, the only console game in which you could save your progress absolutely anywhere on the field. It takes away the usual guilt of using state saving, that makes it even more of a game which I think emulators were created for. And, behind all those annoyances, you'll find a challenging and rewarding game; there are five slightly differing endings, depending on how many of your party members survive the whole trip, but don't expect an "ending" if you fuck it all up besides a "Game Over"; this was 21 years before Heavy Rain. That's still a little hard to grasp; the game has such brilliant ideas behind all that uncomfortable execution that I'm amazed they didn't start working on a follow-up earlier. Well, better late than never; absolutely great, actually. I'm glad this game was made.

I'm extremely disappointed that I didn't familiarize myself with this game years earlier; by "years earlier" I mean the time I had already had some experience in both role-playing and puzzle-oriented adventuring, just not so much of it. I wouldn't have made heads or tails of this game back at the time of its non-release. Even so, I recognize Sweet Home as a curious game extremely recommendable to survival horror fanatics, filled to the brim with great ideas and even greater intentions, just a field interface that was obsolete on arrival and gets worse as years go by.

UPS
+ The origin of some fabulous ideas
+ Cheesy, but effective horror elements, a "few" steps forward from what we had in Castlevania
+ Combat is quick and fun, unlike in most 8-bit RPG's
+ You can save anywhere!
+ A cool plot, quite faithful to the movie; however, as far as presentation goes, the game doesn't feel like a licensed one at all, and unlike the movie, all members of the crew might survive. It just isn't very likely.
+ What we have here is indeed a truly challenging game...

DOWNS
- ...The real challenge in which is however overshadowed by an intolerable user interface; managing everything from the menu is not only hard, but extremely tedious

< 8.2 >

torstai 25. syyskuuta 2014

REVIEW - DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue | Xbox 360 | 2010

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: September 21, 2010 (PS3)
AVAILABLE ON: MAC, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Hothead Games
PUBLISHER(S): EA

Just a snag over two months after the release of DeathSpank, Ron Gilbert delivered the second episode, widely regarded a sequel, named DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue. With notable changes to level and weapon design, and the game's general length, even with fully identical gameplay basics, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue did indeed feel more like a sequel than a direct continuation of the original game. As relatively small as them tweaks may seem, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue is notably better than its predecessor, and no less than one of the most interesting digital downloads available on Xbox LIVE Arcade.

Saving the world from underwear

After vanquishing their revered human leader Lord Von Prong, DeathSpank has been captured by Orques, who are now at all-out war with the humans. Peeling potatoes in an Orque dungeon is no job for a Hero of the Downtrodden, so DeathSpank puts his potato peeler to a more recreational use and breaks out of imprisonment, only to bump into his old friend Sandy, who gives our Dispenser of Justice one more Evil to Vanquish. As the end of the world draws nigh, the time has come to liberate the distinguished bearers of the six Thongs of Virtue - including Santa Claus - of their evil, possessive, and extremely skimpy underwear.

It turns out the most popular fast food in the
world is made of people.
I got DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue right after I'd completed DeathSpank. I didn't really care about it being the "second (and third) episode of the same game" at all; the reviews were slightly better, it seemed that Gilbert and his team had focused on the right things to make the game better, and finally, I had the firm belief that Thongs of Virtue would be to DeathSpank what LeChuck's Revenge was to The Secret of Monkey Island. Relatively speaking, I was quite right - but make no mistake about it, it does look and feel like the exact same game for the most important part. The basic rules of gameplay are exactly the same, 100% - Thongs of Virtue is just presented so much better than its predecessor, from every angle.

Due to the identical gameplay, this review probably won't be very long; just refer to the previous review if you're in need of some pointers. Though the graphics are exactly the same, the level design is so much better and littered with variety, just full of hilarious surprises every step of the way. There are a few larger settlements scattered across the map, and towards the end of the main storyline, you even get a ship which you can use to scavenge a few islands in the ocean that's bothered you up 'til then, after all that puddle swallows up about 30-40% of the world map... DeathSpank's even got a couple of off-key, improvised sea shanties to keep himself, and you the player, entertained. Most NPC's from the previous game return to accompany several truckloads of new ones; the quests they offer you are better than before, as well as their jokes. The character of DeathSpank is also somewhat more charming and less annoying, one step closer to Guybrush Threepwood. Which reminds me, not only does Thongs of Virtue feel more like Ron Gilbert's design, it pays direct homage to his earlier games. For example, the library puzzle from LeChuck's Revenge makes a slight return.

Some French town. Luckily, the great big
guidebook of heroes comes with a crash course
in French.
Although the weapons are better in both variety and basic effect, advanced combat tactics are still weak. Not only are the Justice attacks useless, I'm still not a fan of those Runestone abilities (which, again, prompt you to stick to a couple of low-level weapons to unlock a devastating special ability), 'cause the inventory limit is even more strict than it was before, due to many more truly useful weapons and items than you can possibly equip to get them out from cluttering up the inventory. For example, you need to carry a certain type of sword with you at all times to easily dispose of certain types of undead enemies. There's a ranged weapon which serves you well from the moment you get it right up 'til the end despite its low level, but it won't work on all enemies at all; you'd best have a whole array of disposable weapons, such as bazookas and flamethrowers, with you just in case you bump into a whole horde of tough enemies you must avoid melee contact with. That happens. A lot.

Bazookas? Flamethrowers? What you've got to understand right away is that this game knows no rules. That's why it's so exciting - so much funnier, smarter and less predictable than its predecessor throughout. One minute, you find yourself breaking out of a medieval dungeon. Then figuring out a way to destroy a haywire supercomputer smack in the middle of a dark forest, shooting every passer-by. Then, rescuing damsels in the Wild West - by hilarious means - and doing pest control for the local sheriff by going all John Marston on several groups of bandits. Then, becoming a pirate captain. Then, bypassing the impossible security of the North Pole to rescue the world from an evil, possessed Santa Claus. ...Yeah, it's insane. Insanely funny. Not much of those repetitive quests that plagued the first one, no constant running back and forth (thanks to more outhouses for saving and fast travel), and an all-around fantastic world to explore.

Dashing through the snow, DeathSpank's out to
slay.
Here, the level cap gets hit a bit too early for avid sidequesters; it's obvious, 'cause your level goes up at the exact same speed as in the first game, but this one's got much more content. The single DLC dungeon released for the game - and which is needed to collect all of the Achievements - raises the level cap by 1, perhaps exactly due to the early base cap. All of the 12 Achievements are a little bit harder to get than before, but not in the usual sense; they just require attention which you probably won't be able to pay to the game on the first playthrough unless you're using a guide. One or two Achievements aren't enough to raise the replay value of the game, especially if you've already scoured through all of the sidequests on the first round. There are a couple of endings to the game, but even the other ending is easy to achieve by loading the game after completion; it's all about one simple choice in the very end. The supposedly canonical ending paves the way for a prequel which never came, the other one the way to another sequel that did come, but which Gilbert wasn't a part of. So I guess they're both canonical, in a way, though completely different. Which makes just about as much sense as the whole game.

DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue is definitely worth its steep price, placing yet another question mark on the first game's equal price tag. It's lengthier, funnier, smarter and all-around better, one fine way to feed your hunger for video game parody. I don't think it's totally necessary to own both games, but if you do, be sure to play the first one first. As identical as these two games basically are, the first one is bound to disappoint if you're doing it in the wrong order. As for the third game, just leave it where it is. I'll perhaps return to cover that one later, but for now, let's fare our epic hero of awesomeness well with a high note.

UPS
+ Faster. Better. Stronger.
+ Fabulous level design
+ Great artillery
+ Less repetitive quests, and better control over the use of humour in general

DOWNS
- Advanced combat tactics are still a blur
- The level cap comes too early, along with the best equipment

< 8.6 >

keskiviikko 24. syyskuuta 2014

REVIEW - DeathSpank | Xbox 360 | 2010

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: July 13, 2010 (PS3)
AVAILABLE ON: MAC, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Hothead Games
PUBLISHER(S): EA

Hothead Games was founded in early 2006 as a privately funded independent developer and publisher. Two years later, they released their first episodic adventure game, Penny Arcade Adventures, with genre icon Ron Gilbert of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island fame working in the capacity of a story and design consultant. While serving the same purposes for Telltale Games as they were outlining Tales of Monkey Island, he started designing a whole new game of his own for Hothead, in collaboration with Clayton Kauzlaric with whom he worked on the strategy game Total Annihilation in 1997; this game was to be Gilbert's first as main designer since 1993's Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle. DeathSpank, an action-RPG Gilbert described as "Monkey Island meets Diablo", and loosely based on his Grumpy Gamer web comic, took almost three years to make. The game was ultimately released in two episodes due to its large size; the first "episode" was released in July 2010, and the second one came out only two months later. In the summer of 2011, a third game in the series was released, without Gilbert's involvement as he had moved on from Hothead Games to join his old LucasArts teammate Tim Schafer at Double Fine Productions. ...So, who cares about that one? These first two games form the real legend of DeathSpank - awaken your inner hero and take a stroll in this world of utter nonsense. Only one guy in the world can come up with this stuff.

"Hello, non-distinctive non-player character. I am... DeathSpank."

No-one really knows where this thong-wearing masked knight came from and why - and no one really cares, either. He is DeathSpank; the Dispenser of Justice, the Vanquisher of Evil, and a Hero to the Downtrodden, just as he introduces himself to just about everyone who's willing to listen to him talk for more than two seconds. Although his pompous demeanor might get on your nerves a bit, he does get the job done; ANY job. Heroism is his obsession, it's what he lives for. That, and a magical artifact known as... The Artifact. Unfortunately, he's not the only one after it. Of course he's not - what would a protagonist of a role-playing game do without a high-level arch nemesis? Duh!

Lay waste to the wild ones.
Let's talk about heroes. If you'd just casually ask me to name my "heroes" in the video game business, I'd probably tell you I've grown out of having actual "heroes"; anyone can hit, anyone can miss. That's pretty much the truth, too - besides, the media rarely talks about main designers nowadays, just studios. But behold, as a true legend of computer gaming makes a comeback to main designer status after 17 years on almost perfect exile, suddenly no-one talks about Hothead Games. It's all about Ron Gilbert. Ron Gilbert leaves Hothead, the sales drop. So do the ratings. Go figure. But, here I am once again getting ahead of myself. So let's rewind a bit.

I do have "heroes". Shigeru Miyamoto will always be my hero - no matter what he's up to nowadays, he's designed several top games of yesteryear because of which I still play games today, not to mention games I still take on a sporadic spin, three decades later. Hideo Kojima - not my favourite person in the world, but that don't change one tiny peck of what I think about him as a game designer. Hironobu Sakaguchi, obviously, together with composer Nobuo Uematsu. Those guys made Final Fantasy what it was up 'til the turn of the millennium, and just look where that franchise stands today without either one of these grand old men of J-RPG around in any capacity. Finally, Ron Gilbert - without whom I'd probably never have fallen for one PC game in my life. Perhaps the original Maniac Mansion didn't really grab me by the balls, but the famous script utility they specifically created for that game got perfected in just a couple of years, and resulted in the birth of several of the best, funniest and most intelligent point 'n' click adventure games ever made. After reading about it for so many years, I finally played Monkey Island in 2000. The Curse of Monkey Island, though, which wasn't designed by Gilbert... but through that game, I found The Secret of Monkey Island, and through that one, Gilbert's centerpiece Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, which I still consider one of the greatest games ever conceived. It changed my perspective on so many things - mainly on how fun playing on a PC can be. Say what you will, to me this 23-year old classic is still the best PC game ever made.

My first reaction to DeathSpank was not all positive, even though I was ecstatic to have Gilbert back on the scene, and back in the creative helm. 17 years is plenty of time to craft the outlines of your next pet project, and this is a guy who you know to suck every bit of innovation out of a simple gameplay scheme. It's not just any action-RPG, it's an action-RPG made by Ron Gilbert - it's going to be simple but fun to play, colourful, and most likely God damn hilarious... as well as expensive. A risk. Back when the first "episode" came out, I had just heard, maybe a day before its release, that it's more or less the first part of a two-part game. Its price felt too steep for just the "first half". The reviews weren't perfect, and I was in at least such a poor financial state that I actually cared about them, had it been a Ron Gilbert-brand game or not. I didn't do demos, at all. Not sure why. I always went straight for the full game - but only if I was 100% certain they were good. ...Which they always weren't. Nowadays, I'm not as careful. Even though it may sometimes feel the exact opposite, I'm not that judgmental anymore. I take risks. DeathSpank is one risk that has been waiting for taking for a very long time, and I'm glad I took it. It's not perfect, but it's got quite enough of those moments a huge fan of those good old SCUMM classics can't help but cherish. Or an RPG fan, as simple and streamlined as the game might be in that sense.

Pluckmuckel, the only real settlement in the
whole game. But it's a nice one.
The graphics are really good, the comic book look with everything out of proportion and deliberately unattractive character design works like a charm in a game of such humorous nature. The level design is quite unique, as the whole world is depicted as one giant globe, it's like... well, like any level in Super Mario Galaxy, on a game-wide scale; Choosing any direction from a certain point of the map might take you somewhere new, it's surprisingly vast and unlimited for a downloadable game of a relatively small bit size. However, when the whole world map finally unveils, you'll see how surprisingly straightforward it all was, and how much was obviously left for the sequel, or "second episode" to cover. There aren't a whole lot of different tunes in the game, but a LOT of dialogue. In the style of old SCUMM games, you can carry on with any conversation about as long as you want, but you can just as easily end the conversation any time you wish. It's all in how much you can take 'em jokes, nothing else. DeathSpank's tongue-in-cheek voiceover work, especially that of the main character (voiced by Michael Dobson) might start getting on your nerves towards the end, just as the humour itself. More about that later, though.

DeathSpank has a very simple role-playing concept. You are DeathSpank, a legendary hero whose primary mission - which he considers his own, but is more or less doing it for a woman (aren't they all?) - is to recover "The Artifact", a vague-looking... thing, which holds unimaginable power. It's quite the red herring to kick off two other primary quests; gathering materials for a witch so she can create a magical crystal used to open the path to The Artifact, and rescuing the kidnapped orphans of the town of Pluckmuckel from a very strange, narcissistic tyrant also obsessed with The Artifact. In between these quests, there are about 80 sidequests waiting to be accepted all across the map. Each one takes you about two minutes to complete, and the rewards are often quite remarkable; powerful enchanted items for both attack and defense, and great equipment. Most equipment can be bought from stores at some point of the game, but they can also be won by doing sidequests. Like in most conventional RPG's, you need to be on a certain level to use certain equipment, but you can bend the rules a bit with perks that, among other things, allow you to use equipment of a slightly higher tier number. The nature of the quests? Try "anything". At one point, you must fetch a taco of specific requirements (you read quite right) to a legendary blacksmith to convince him to make you a new sword. In one of the sidequests a crazy farmer sends you to retrieve unicorn crap for his crops - so you need to go to a forest filled with homicidal (!) unicorns, spice up their grass fodder with some laxative and wait 'til one comes to supper. Destroy a church bell to allow the rich and self-absorbed residents of a luxury cabin site to have some peace and quiet. You are a hero to all in need - they don't always have to be good guys. You're not the smartest cat around, but you know your sword like it's your... sword.

Items and equipment cannot be sold - but from the very beginning, you have something in your inventory which basically lets you "sell" your equipment. The Grinder can be used to literally grind any non-key item or weapon to real money. As DeathSpank himself describes the Grinder: gotta love modern science!

Again quite in the style of old SCUMM games, there are some puzzles connected to the quests, but the kind and clever gameplay designers worked out a loophole for players who either weren't there when point 'n' click was the jig, or any good at them. Just going around and breaking stuff is very useful, as among many other items you might stumble on Fortune Cookies, which allow you to unlock hints for quests; the more complex the quest, the more the number of hints for one goes up, naturally. You can't buy Fortune Cookies at stores and at least it felt like the game runs completely out of 'em from a certain point onwards, so use them sparingly - you might damn well need them on some of the quests on the later half of the game. Just an example, and a free hint; a lone hermit is in possession of a sealed, wooden box which is impossible to open, and he gives it to you for safekeeping, hoping you can find a way to open it. Just looking around a bit, you might notice that there's a whole colony of termites just a rock throw away from his house. Termites. Wood. 1+1. Aww, how I've missed this shit. Too bad there's so little of it, ultimately. Most of the quests are about killing something. Or simply fetching something. I seem to remember it's been more entertaining.

What would happen if a bear and an antelope got
it on? Well, a bearalope, of course.
For the absolute majority of the game, you fight monsters and other hostile beings. You can assign both the digital pad and each one of the face buttons to anything you wish. For example, I assign 'em like this: Up = Health Potion, Left = high-level food, Right = mid-level food, Down = an item for powerful offense, such as "Hell from Heaven", X = primary melee weapon, Y = club or axe, B = magical melee weapon, and finally A = ranged weapon. It works out quite well, too. Whatever you choose, combat is quite fun, but if it's the Diablo level of thoroughly smooth operation you're expecting here, you're in for a disappointment. 'Spank takes breathers of his own accord from time to time, his range isn't always as long as it looks like, and he moves weird. Adjusting the camera to suit your current needs doesn't help, as it tends to auto-pan during combat. Weapons marked with arrows and highlighted in purple are Weapons of Justice; whenever you land a successful hit, your Justice Meter goes up, and when it's at maximum, you are supposed to be able to unleash a powerful Justice attack with any weapon. In reality, there are only a few certain weapons in the whole game with a Justice attack that makes any concrete difference. During your travels, you will find Runestones, which allow you to combine very specific sets of weapons for even more powerful Justice attacks, and these ones are really powerful, but the thing is that the weapon requirements are usually quite weak. You must equip yourself with two weak weapons to gain one special attack you can just as easily do without, and especially with the very strict inventory limit that's just bull. Having gone over the kinda small, but eventually notable flaws to the whole combat system, and the ultimately repetitive quests leaves us with the humour.

Divine punishment for the men of the cloth.
Is DeathSpank funny enough to bear through? Of course it is. ...BUT, again, if you're looking for something on the level of Monkey Island, you're in the wrong place. The presentation is very similar to Day of the Tentacle, actually, but keep in mind that this is a much longer game, and while Day of the Tentacle might've been sensical (rhyme) from time to time due to its intelligent plot, all sense is thrown out the window the second DeathSpank takes his first step. The plot is really simple and irrelevant, allowing just about every single sentence to be a joke. I probably don't need to explain that in such a lengthy game, the jokes WILL dry down and repeat towards the end. The humour loses its surprise factor, it becomes completely predictable, and simply put, the jokes might well drive you to fury whereas they entertained the hell out of you during the first couple of hours. Especially when a quest itself turns into a bad, repetitive joke, such as fetching stuff for the same NPC, one item at a time, from the exact same place, over five times in a row. All in all, it's not nearly as brilliantly and intelligently crafted, and full of surprises, as perhaps the most obvious point of comparison when it comes to RPG parody - South Park: The Stick of Truth.

DeathSpank is quite spot-on with its general difficulty - it all boils down to how dedicated you are with sidequesting. Even managing all the sidequests and beating the game doesn't guarantee hitting the level cap, though; you might need to run around the high-level areas after the completion of the game for 20-30 minutes to do that, if your mind is set on collecting all of the 12 Achievements. There's no real challenge to the Achievements besides bearing the game just a bit beyond the box. DeathSpank's a fine icon for your Gamerscore list of completed games on the Xbox.

DeathSpank is definitely expensive, occasionally irritating, very often tedious and repetitive, but it can also be a fine and outright hilarious time-killing tool. I think that in the end, Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion fans will be pleased with their purchase, especially once they realize that even if DeathSpank's merely the first episode of a two-part trip, you don't necessarily have to buy the second one - after all, the story's not exactly exciting. It's extremely recommendable if you liked this one, though, and I'll very soon tell you why.

UPS
+ Character development is simple, straightforward and accessible; you don't have to be any sort of RPG buff to be able to enjoy DeathSpank
+ Unique art style and level design
+ Well designed control scheme
+ With Ron Gilbert's signatures all over it, it's funny as heck...

DOWNS
- ...Until the humour becomes too much of a standard, predictable and dull
- Repetitive quests, both in storyline and on the side
- Weak advanced combat tactics; most of the time, you get along just fine mashing your way through
- Steep price for a notably smaller game than the equally priced "second episode"

< 8.0 >