To the Moon: Holiday Special Minisodes 1 & 2 – Game Review


Review Format 1 - The Plot Spot

In the first minisode, it’s been a while since the events of “To the Moon,” and it’s Christmas time at Sigmund, the company where Neil and Eva work. They find themselves stuck there due to a large group of protesters outside their building.

TtM Mini_06

This bottle-episode trope provides some opportunities for various characters to interact with one another, delving a little into the morally and ethically questionable work of the company, as well as build interpersonal relationships while they wait for the protesters to disperse and the snowy weather to let up.

TtM Mini_05

In the second minisode, the protesters and snow are gone and it’s time for people to find their way home for their own Christmases, but things don’t quite work out as planned. This minisode explores the relationships of the main characters further, but more than that, it drops hints and mysterious sights that tantalize the player for the sequel.  

Review Format 2 - Target Audience

The target audience is pretty straightforward. This is directed at people who have already played “To the Moon” and can’t wait for the sequel. That being the case, they provide the same sorts of experiences that “To the Moon” provided. Players can expect some light humor, mystery and excellent characters built on the foundation of a science fiction premise. If that sounds good to you and you haven’t played “To the Moon” yet, then you should! For more information about that game, check out my review of “To the Moon” HERE.

Review Format 3 - The Short Take

“To the Moon’s” minisodes do a good job at continuing the character building for Neil and Eva that occurred during the first game. These two were not nearly as fleshed out as their patient in that game, and the future of the series will rely on expanding their characters, so this is a good first step in that direction. Not only that, but the hints and foreshadowing of things to come do a great job of whetting the appetite for the sequel without giving any secrets away.

That said, these minisodes truly live up to the “mini” part of their name. I would say that both of them require no more than a half-hour to finish, and neither of them had a real depth of content. There simply isn’t much to do but explore the environment, talk to everyone you can as many times as you can, and observe the short plot as it unfolds. It doesn’t cover much territory, as the events all happen in and around the Sigmund building, and it doesn’t answer any questions whatsoever.

TtM Mini_04

These minisodes feel like scenes from the beginning of the upcoming sequel that wouldn’t fit into the story well without destroying the pacing, so they split it off and offered it as a goodie for the fans. This not only allows FreeBird to tell this part of the story while upholding the artistry of their future game, but this also keeps fans invested. These story morsels are a nice way to keep “To the Moon” in mind until the sequel, which feels a time and forever away.

Even though the minisodes aren’t very meaty in terms of content, they are free. So, considering that low low price, “To the Moon’s” minisodes 1 & 2 are completely worth their short run-time.

4.0-4.5 Rating - I'll Take it!

If you want to know more about my rating systems, check out what each rating means HERE.

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The Stanley Parable – Review


Review Format 1 - The Plot Spot

An indie game by the small developer Galactic Cafe, “The Stanley Parable” is about a man named Stanley, a simple office worker who enjoys nothing more than pressing the buttons he has been told to press every day. Then, one day, he leaves his workspace and finds his office building mysteriously empty. All the while, his exploration is given narration and snarky commentary by a mysterious voice.

 The plot and story is in some ways extraordinarily simple, and in other ways complicated. It is as much, if not more, a thought experiment than an actual game. The game explores the power and variance that comes from the power of choice, and how much difference can come from the simple act of choosing which door to enter.

Stanley Parable 2

“Stanley chose the door on his left.”


Review Format 2 - Target AudienceTheoretically, the game’s simplicity opens it up to anyone who can wrap their head around the simple mechanics of movement that is commonplace in first-person games. However, the mind-bending subject matter is primarily a commentary on choice in games, and what is possible even within the constraints of a simple game. This means it might not mean as much to someone who doesn’t play many games.

However, the game is simultaneously aimed at people who enjoy the thought experiment aspect of the experience. This might be interesting even to someone with no experience with games whatsoever, but it is a very specific sort of interest, so I imagine that audience is small. There is no real action to speak of, so if the player isn’t interested in the ideas it will be a dreadfully boring experience for them. Finally, to get the full experience of the game’s ideas it requires multiple playthroughs – as many as eighteen to get every ending.

So this game is ideally for gamers who prefer idea-driven narratives, little action, and have completionist compulsive tendencies. Let’s just say it’s a niche audience.  


Review Format 3 - The Short Take

“The Stanley Parable” is an interesting idea, and it has some insightful things to say about game narratives and choice in games. The narrator is a lot of fun to listen to, and the twists and turns some of the pathways take through the game can be fascinating. That said, the gameplay is dull, and a short playtime per pathway can’t save it from growing boring after a few times through, especially if you are unlucky enough to hit the most boring story paths your first few times through. This is especially bad news when the game only really comes into its own after the player is exposed to the vast majority of the stories that are told in “The Stanley Parable”’s framework. If the player doesn’t see the majority of the game, the time spent isn’t really worth it.

It may be a niche game with some flaws, but it is hard to hold that against it when it has such interesting ideas. Ultimately I think it’d be worth taking a look if you find it in…

3-4 Rating - The Bargain Bin

If you want to know more about my ratings, check out what each rating means HERE.

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Undertale – Review



What it is:

An indie game made by Toby Fox after a successful kickstarter campaign, “Undertale” is a retro-style RPG following the tale of a human child who accidentally falls into an underground world of monsters beneath a mountain, and the child’s quest to return home. This story shares a basic premise with similar games, but the branching paths of the plot, characters, and even game mechanics, take twists and turns that upend many of the expectations and tropes that have become the bedrock of the genre.  


The Short of It:

“Undertale” is an exceptional game. It is not long, even considering multiple playthroughs, but the game makes every second of your time worth it. The game mechanics are simple but brilliant. The basic art and bit music are used to excellent effect to create a colorful world that is a joy to explore and live in, and to provide an atmosphere of quirk, adventure and heart to the player’s journey.

The plot has multiple branching paths created by the player’s interactions with the charming characters, and yet these branches are marked more by the change of relationships of the player to the characters than by changes in the plot. Despite this, every little branch feels world-shakingly different.

“Undertale” is a funny, clever, and deceptively simple game with a big heart and impressive meta-knowledge of how people play RPG games that allows it to rise well beyond the typical genre fare.

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Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void (Single-Player) – Review


Starcraft II

What it is:

“Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void” is a real-time strategy game, and a follow up expansion that builds from “Wings of Liberty” and “Heart of the Swarm,” which, as a whole, serves as a sequel to the original “Starcraft” and its expansion “Brood War.” Legacy of the Void picks up after the end of “Heart of the Swarm,” but for much of the story it only focuses on the Protoss until the Epilogue Missions which bring the three races, Zerg, Protoss, and Terran together. The main storyline follows Artanis, the leader of the Templar Protoss in his quest to defeat Amon, a Cthuluan dark god, a fallen Xel’Naga, and then switches to follow Artanis, Kerrigan, and Jim Raynor as a trio in the Epilogue.


The Short of It:

“Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void” is a good game. Blizzard’s games are always polished, and LotV follows that tradition. The gameplay is smooth and polished, and likely the best in the RTS genre, but it has been that good since “Wings of Liberty,” so nothing new there. However, the design of the levels wasn’t very strong in places, and the story feels thin and a bit bland despite its epic scope, which disappointed me considering Blizzard’s pedigree. Despite my qualms with the game, it is still fun and well made, generally speaking. I recommend it to fans of the series and the genre, with the caveat that the story and ending will likely disappoint. I don’t recommend it to people new to the franchise, who should really go back and start from at least “Wings of Liberty” if not the original Starcraft.


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“Mass Effect 3” – Review

The most incredible space opera of our generation comes to a mostly satisfying close.

March 13, 2012 – Star Wars and Star Trek have long dominated the mindshare of popular culture in the science fiction realm. They had a right to. Both told epic stories from the small screen to the silver screen, exploring the wonders of the stars. But as time passed, with Star War’s fall from grace, the lack of Star Trek dominance on television, and with the rise of new media, other stories have stepped forward to take forth the banner of science fiction space operas. But none of them come close to the marvel that is the Mass Effect series.

Mass Effect 3 sees the return of the Reapers to the Galaxy, a doomsday warned of by Commander Shepherd and her stalwart crew, and now, with Earth and the Galaxy as a whole crumbling before everyone’s eyes, no one can doubt any more. Commander Shepherd must not only rally her crew mates, but now the entire Galaxy to fight off this dire threat to the existence of all civilization. It will not be an easy task. Shepherd will have to bridge over old animosities, bring peace to disparate factions, and forge alliances where once was open hatred and war.

The story that Mass Effect weaves is astonishing in scope, certainly, but equally as amazing is the quality with which it is achieved. Watching as Shepherd finds ways to bridge the gaps between the races is believable, and set in the foundation of information being built from Mass Effect 1 onward. The Genophage, the Geth, Cerberus – all of these issues have been present since the first game, and how they play out in the last feels natural and brilliant. What should be impossible is made possible, and the choices of the past come back to either haunt or strengthen Shepherd’s cause.

The game does a remarkable job portraying the costs of war.

The characters are similarly brilliantly portrayed. The dialogue, not just between Shepherd and the crew, but also between the crew mates themselves, is terrifically done. Each character is unique, wonderfully realized and either likeable or despicable based on their own terms. The authenticity of each character is never something questioned by the player. They have become real.

In my time with Garrus, Liara and the rest, I felt like I truly knew them. The new faces make welcome additions also. Vega, a character I was initially worried about, turned out to be a hilarious and colorful addition. Cortez provided another facet altogether, not prone to any stereotypes or bravado, he felt like a real person. This was especially important due to his status as one of the two homosexual characters in the game.

Old characters return, even if only for brief missions and cameos, and more often than not you’ll wish you could spend more time with them. Some of these characters have even moved on to different stages of their lives, and don’t rejoin the crew for believable reasons. Some have decided to settle down, others may be wrapped up in their own issues, and still others may be slowly waiting for death. You aren’t the center of these characters’ universes (for all that the game places such a responsibility on Shepherd’s shoulders), and that makes the world feel that much more real.

Now, all of this said, the story and characterization takes an abrupt turn for the worse at the very end of the game. If you have already played the game, and do not mind spoilers, you can read my analysis of the endings At My Main Blog, as well as some further analysis of what went wrong at the Rough Writers Blog. I can hardly imagine a player who won’t be disturbed on some level concerning the endings, so I have to mention it.

To put it in vague terms, for those avoiding spoilers, there is little real choice at the end of the game for the player, no matter how the player has played the game. Paragon, Renegade, it doesn’t really matter, the choices are the same, with very small differences. Also, forget closure. There is little to none. There are positive things in the endings. Some good nuggets that I cling to. But they are largely outweighed by the flaws.

It is one thing to have a bitter sweet ending. Bitter-sweet is laudable, especially given the context of the Reaper invasion. It is another thing entirely to have no good endings at all.

Forgetting for a moment DLC and any other possible ways Bioware may still fix these problems, the question remains: Despite the ending, was the game worth it?

The answer is unquestionably yes. I laughed and cried my way through the entire game. The bonds I had built over three games, the emotional investment, payed off in so many little ways. The journey of getting to the end was incredible, and easily one of the best journeys in gaming and in entertainment period. Mass Effect is on the same level for me as Star Wars and Star Trek – perhaps greater. It certainly has more of my emotions twisted up in it.

“Story story, character character, blah blah… how does it play?” – You might ask (you monster). Well, it plays a whole lot like Mass Effect 2. Nearly identically. However, it must be said that some elements of the controls have been smoothed out, and some RPG elements dropped from the first game have made a return. There are a lot more and varied weapons again, with modifications to boot. The leveling system has also gained some needed choice and variety to let the player decide exactly how they want to fight.

Surprisingly, the Kinect works pretty well.

More importantly, the enemy variety and level design have received some significant improvements. The battles I’ve had in Mass Effect 3 were easily the most interesting and intense I’ve had in the series to date. For all its prowess, the Mass Effect series has been said to be an average third-person cover-based shooter, hardly comparable to the likes of Gear of War 3. But with this entry I feel that the series has finally stepped into the the shooter big-leagues, both mechanically and tactically.

The graphics are the best in the series, even if I’ve experienced more bugs than I recall from the first two. There will be multiple times when a conversation will suffer from an inexplicably invisible or flickering squad-mate, or times when Shepherd bugs out and starts flying around Iron-Man style. But in the end, these are minor issues, and nothing like the lag from Mass Effect 2’s Omega Relay sequence is found anywhere.

To top it all off, despite the departure of the last composer, the music of Mass Effect 3 hasn’t suffered one bit. The music is wonderfully done, perfectly tailored to each moment, and drives the emotional crescendos the game will be remembered for. If any game soundtrack deserves a purchase, this would be it.

Closing Comments:
I loved this game. For all the heartbreak I have over the lame endings, the journey there was worth every second. Staying up all night never felt so good. If you haven’t played this game yet, or its predecessors, what are you waiting for? You’re missing out on one of, if not the greatest science fiction space epics of our time. It’ll be hard for anything to top this for game of the year come December. The Mass Effect series has etched its name on my heart.

STAR RATING: (4 & ½ Stars)

Four and one-half Stars

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.

Spoiler Talk:
I feel utterly drained. What a ride. For as much as Bioware has me frustrated about their endings, I must also thank them for the experiences I’ve been able to have through their artistry. I would not trade my time with the Normandy and her crew, my time with Liara, Garrus, Joker, EDI and the others for anything.

Now, to be sure, the endings were pretty bad. Not completely bad, but certainly mostly bad. As for the why’s and wherefores, well I talk about the endings in some detail at both my Main Blog and over at the Rough Writers Blog, as I’ve mentioned before. I won’t be going into any more detail here. I feel like I’ve talked the subject into the ground.

But there is so much to say otherwise! I saw Earth burning, and civilians dying. I saw Palaven burning too. I saw men and women determined to fight for their worlds, and their lives, struggling against beings the size of skyscrapers with power that would make them seem gods. I cured the Genophage. I witnessed the death of a Reaper at the might of a Thresher Maw. I brought peace between the Krogan and the Turians. I passed through a virtual tron-meets-ghostbusters world.

I fought an evil, badass Space-Ninja.

I witnessed the advent of true sentience in the Geth, and brought an end to their long conflict with the Quarians, leaving them both to build their lives together on their newly shared home world. I built an allegiance spanning the whole of the Galaxy, and fielded the grandest fleet in history. I spurred the creation of the mightiest scientific project ever conceived of.

But more importantly… I saw old friends again, and made new ones.

I joked with Vega in the cargo hold. I comforted Cortez over the loss of his husband. I befriended Traynor and watched her turn from an uncertain tech to an irreplaceable crew member. I helped Jacob save his new life protecting a scientist he loved. I helped Wrex move beyond past hatreds on to a brighter future. I witnessed Jack’s redemption and acceptance of new responsibilities. I brought Tali home, where she saw her world for the first time unhindered by her mask. I helped Miranda save her sister from her father. I said goodbye to Thane one last time. I saw Legion sacrifice himself so that his species may evolve to something greater. I watched Moridin find redemption through aiding the Krogan he had wronged, and die in the process.

I watched EDI find meaning in life. And then I watched her and Joker find love in a bold new future, where synthetics and organics are one.

I became best friends with Garrus. A cool-headed, determined and heroic badass, and one of the most amazing characters in gaming, or any other medium. I’ll never forget that time with the Sniper Rifles at the Citadel.

"I'm Edward Cheever, and Garrus is my favorite character in Mass Effect."

My Shepherd worried, mourned, laughed and loved with Liara, and saw her turn from a scared and naïve scientist into the powerful and determined Shadow Broker. And only my Shepherd will ever know her softer side – who she really is at heart.

I sacrificed myself to try and provide a better future for the Galaxy, for my friends, and for Liara – evolving all life to another plane, beyond the dichotomy of synthetic and organic, to something new, something different, something beyond our imagination.

To put into words what all this means to me would be to diminish it. So while Bioware may have failed to bring closure to this life, I will let this simple record stand as a memorial to my Shepherd, and the experiences I had living these experiences through her.

Thanks Bioware. Thanks for what you’ve given me.

“To The Moon” – Review

Shining as beautiful and melancholy as a moonbeam.

January 15, 2012 – It is rare that I hear about indie games from mainstream video game press outlets, as it takes a great deal of time and effort to cover the AAA blockbuster titles of the industry, but thankfully “To the Moon” caught the attention of the gentlemen over at Gamespot – so much so, in fact, that they dedicated a whole podcast solely to this title. Doing something that significant and unexpected certainly gave the game some much needed attention.

And this is truly a game that deserves eyes. This is a title that earns every bit of love, perhaps more so, than any of the big sixty-dollar games. It is a game of power, heart, charm, humor, drama and humanity. For all its flaws, this is a game that lifts the medium beyond mere entertainment into the realm of literary art.

Wow, that sounds like unreasonable hype. But before we get to the story of the game, which is the true star, there is some very important missing context. “To the Moon” is a game that creates and destroys typical expectations. The gameplay is sparse and minimal, the difficulty is either brutal or a cakewalk, and the graphics practically demand the gameplay to match that of the classic 16 bit Japanese Role-Playing Games of the Super Nintendo days, when it is anything but – which leads to a very self-aware joke early in the game that is simply priceless.

Of course, those same graphics have other effects. They are beautiful, but simple. Nostalgic and comfortable, yet capable of magical and unexpected things. Perhaps their greatest asset is the fact that they require involvement, imagination and the attention of the player to fully grasp them. In much the same way that books gain their power through the enhancement of the imagination of the reader, so too these graphics demand the reader to embellish the scenario. While a fully rendered 3d graphics engine might have been able to convey more direct emotions through digital acting, that sort of magic requires a budget. Under the circumstances, the graphics are not only practical, they are ideal.

The gameplay, however, is where expectations fall apart. In truth, “To the Moon” is barely a game, instead it would better be described as an interactive experience with light puzzle elements. The gameplay consists almost entirely of using the mouse or the movement keys to move around environments and click on people or objects to interact with them. It is a point-and-click adventure in a traditional sense.

Meanwhile there are puzzle sequences that consist of flipping clear tan tiles to try and get rid of them. At first the puzzles are infuriatingly difficult, primarily because the game makes no effort whatsoever to explain the goal of the puzzle. Furthermore, even though there are instructions on what actions you may take, they aren’t thorough enough, and make little sense for some time. However, once you’ve figured the instructions out, the puzzles become simplistic. To the point that completing them takes seconds.

Needless to say, the gameplay is the weak point of the game. There are places where the gameplay doesn’t live up to its potential, such as the puzzle sequences, but it utterly fails in others, specifically a sequence late in the game that turns the mechanics from point-and-click into a sort of crude sidescrolling shooter. Presumably this was to add further interactivity and game-ness, but while the moment fit the story, the controls were weird, a bit out of place, and it didn’t feel like the same care and attention had been paid to it as the rest of the game.

The story, meanwhile, more than makes up for these flaws with a powerful tale about human relationships. It is exceedingly rare to find a game that has a story to tell at a level of literary merit. “To the Moon” is one such game.

As a reviewer, it is a scary thing to praise something you love too much. All too often, good or great works can be over-hyped to the point that no amount of quality can live up to it. And that is my greatest fear in praising this story. The story is not particularly flashy. It does not involve epic stakes, or winding tales of far-off lands. Instead it deals with regular people. Individuals with daily problems, and their relationships with one another. And yet in these simple topics, the game developer has managed to find deep and emotional drama that feels authentic, subtle and very, very real.

But for as grounded as the story is, it does rely on a science fiction premise – one that seems at least partially inspired by the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In the near future, scientists have the ability to attach a machine to individuals, and then enter their memories to witness them. They can them simulate these memories in the machine, manipulate them around, and then transmit them back to the individual who will take these new memories to be their actual memories.

It sounds complicated, but the essence of this story element is this: there is a company who can be hired by people on their death beds to come and manipulate their memories so that they will remember their deepest desire had come true. If a dead-beat janitor wishes to have his memories changed so that he thinks he actually lived his dream of becoming a rock star, they can do that.

The Importance of a Platypus

Two of these scientists, Dr. Wyatt and Dr. Rosaleane, have been sent out to the bedside of a dying old man, Johnny, to change his memories so that he can die happy. In short order, it is revealed that his deepest wish is to go to the moon. The trick is, he doesn’t know why he wants to go to the moon. So to grant John’s wish, the scientists head out on a journey through his memories to discover why he wants to go to the moon. What follows is a fascinating deconstruction of Johnny’s life, his relationships, his emotions, his qualities, and his flaws told in reverse.

The story addresses numerous themes. How hard communication between people really is. How much of our relationships are built around assumptions, faith and hope that we are somehow understood. The importance, but also the frailty and danger of memories. The effects that past events have on the present.

In many ways, this game could be the subject of a dissertation. The more you look into it, the more everything in the game is obviously a symbol that reinforces the themes just as they figure in so seamlessly into the plot, and ultimately show the player something about humanity as a whole. Like any excellent story, there are layers of meaning that simply aren’t as obvious until you’ve thought it over once or twice, and that is, in itself, enough reason to come back and play it through again.

The structure of the story itself is also particularly brilliant. Since one of the primary themes of the story is how much early events in our lives can shape everything that comes afterward, it allows John’s very earliest memories to become a sort of climax in the tale – a turning point whose revelations put everything that comes after into sharp clarity, and charts the way forward once more, as the scientists grapple with what to do.

The structure is also divided up by the aforementioned puzzle sequences, which always represent a transition to a memory from further in Johnny’s past. While these puzzles are nice metaphor for the process, it’s a shame that they couldn’t be better and more directly tied with the storytelling.

John’s characterization is the prime element of the story, but there are no wasted characters around him. Pretty much everyone has depth, intricacies, and flaws and charms of their own. The most important of these characters is River, Johnny’s deceased wife. The relationship between Johnny and River is central to the plot of the story, and also the source of some of the saddest and greatest moments of the game.

But Dr. Wyatt and Dr. Rosaleane are not cardboard cutouts either. They can be goofy, and oddball at times, being pretty much the sole source of the brilliant comedy in the game (which is used expertly to offset and emphasize the drama and tragedy), but they also go through changes as they experience Johnny’s life, wrestling with the ethics of their own actions, and the way they see Johnny and the other characters of Johnny’s memories. There are many other minor characters as well, but none are used lightly, often serving as foils for Johnny and River to accentuate their personalities and issues.

For all this, the ending will either strike the player as wonderful or a disappointment. I found myself loving it, even as it left me both happy and hollow at the same time. That hollow edge is what will drive some players to despise the ending, and it is hard to blame them. Every player’s reactions will be largely governed by how they interpret what happened, what they believe regarding memories, and quite frankly what they believe happens when we die. “To the Moon” asks complicated questions just under the surface of the events it presents, and there are no easy answers.

The music is wonderful and a terrific parring with the game itself. While I didn’t pick up on this particular note personally (I was introduced to the idea in the Hotspot spoilercast for the game, which I highly recommend after you’ve played it through), the music of the game actually parallels some of the thematic and personal elements of the story. River’s theme, through its repetitive nature, actually matches with her personality. It’s not only a beautiful score, it’s thematically appropriate, and thus brilliant.

Closing Comments:

It’s hard to do the game justice in a simple review. And of course that is the problem of reviewing great works of art – the ideas within the work cannot be as eloquently told in a summary fashion. These elements need to be explored they way they were laid out in the game to be fully understood. So the best I can do is to say that this game has flaws, it has minimal and weak gameplay, but for all of that, the story, through its excellent dialogue, humor and illuminating approach to examining the human condition, has become one of the best games of last year, one of the best stories in games and literature, and one of my personal favorites of all time.

STAR RATING: (4 Stars)

Four out of Five Stars

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.

Spoiler Talk:

There is so much material that could fit under this section that I’m not sure where to begin, or end. In that regard, this section might seem a little bit stream-of-conscious (because it more or less will be).

I suppose I’ll start with the characters. Johnny, for all that he is the primary subject, is not particularly likeable for most of the game. He acts selfishly in many respects. It is hard for him to truly see what is going on inside of the people around him. In that, he is entirely relate-able. Yes, he’s selfish, but aren’t we all? And his selfishness isn’t unreasonable either. In many ways, he truly has given up so much of himself. That’s the whole reason he calls out to science for help. He feels hollow. He was never truly allowed to be himself.

This is largely because of what was done to him as a child. He was forced to forget the memory of his brother, who died in a terrible accident. This loss of memory may have driven out the basic facts from his mind, but the effects of that event are still very much entrenched in his mind. So when his mother, who is driven more or less crazy by the accident, calls Johnny by his brother’s name, it’s terrible. Not just because of the tragedy behind her delusion, but because it signifies something important. All his life, Johnny has been living out his brother’s life. He was trying, without realizing it, to fill the hole in his mother’s life left by his dead and forgotten (by him) brother.

When these things are finally revealed, I found that I didn’t hate johnny at all. I pitied him. He was a victim of his past, and his own forgotten memories – filled with emotions and sadness he didn’t have solid reasons for. He never really was himself. Which is why when he meets and falls in love with River for the second time, he never fully connects with her as he did in that one, brief and beautiful moment before his memories are erased.

And River tries so hard to help him remember...

The ending of the game, then, though it does still feel hollow, shows how that once those memories are restored, given the right circumstances, he once more connects with River. That final scene of their flight to the moon together, holding hands, is a wonderful image. Even if it wasn’t truly real, it was real in Johnny’s heart, and I think that makes a difference.

Of course this does nothing for River who at least was more mature and perceptive than Johnny, and so could see his love for her, even though she couldn’t express her own back to him. The whole situation around her medical condition, Asperger’s Syndrome, is fascinating to me. In many ways, despite this real problem that makes connecting with other people difficult, she is more successful at truly connecting with others than Johnny is.

This game made me cry multiple times. Tears-on-my-face-sobbing, too, not the bare misty eyes other games give me. When it hit home to me the pain and sadness, yet deep love these characters had, it would just do me in. It was so sad, and so wonderful.

I think that scene with little Johnny and River sitting on the log looking at the stars is one of those seminal moments in my gaming life. All gamers have them, those moments that define our experience with the medium that make us love our hobby. This was one of those for me.

There are so many more things I could go on about. The wonderful symbols of lighthouses and stars, the moon, and the endless origami rabbits, not to mention that dear old platypus… I could go on for hours I think. But I have to stop sometime, and that image of Johnny and River together as young, innocent children is the perfect punctuation mark on this marvelous game.

“The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” – Wii Review

The beginning of the myth, the tale, the legend.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

January 7, 2012 – The Legend of Zelda is one of the most revered franchises in gaming history, and for good reason. Through this series, Nintendo has showcased some of the most polished gameplay, innovating mechanics and clever puzzles, all within the framework of timeless and beautiful fairy-tale storytelling. With this latest entry, Nintendo tries and mostly succeeds to once more show why the Legend of Zelda is still one of gaming’s greatest series.

Of course the challenge has been thrown at the games before that they do not, in fact, innovate. There are some definite and good reason for that. Most of the games since Ocarina of Time have tried walking in those same footsteps to try and recapture the magic of that seminal title, and none have fully succeeded. While each have had their charms, from Wind Waker to Twilight Princess, there have been several constants that make them feel either dated or not quite up to par. Twilight Princess had a slow start, and Wind Waker had an endless expanse of bland ocean to traverse that took ages to explore with little to show for it. And every Zelda game, ever, seems to have the same progression, the same structure, the same weapons, the same enemies, the same controls.

Forgetting my love of those games for just one moment, it is true that they simply do not stand up to the same level of mastery that was Ocarina of Time, for all their unique charms. And it’s impossible to not compare these games to Ocarina. Ocarina set the standard for the Zelda franchise in 3d a long time ago, just as A Link to the Past did for the 2d games. So the bar for Skyward Sword is very high.

And that is when Skyward Sword decides it doesn’t want to compare itself to Ocarina and tries to set a new bar of its own. The same charges of lack of innovation that have been laid against every Zelda Game from the days of the Nintendo 64 on (save Majora’s Mask, with its own wildly different experience), simply cannot be laid against Skyward Sword. Do you play as Link? Yes. Do you still have bombs? Yes. Arrows? Check. Slingshot? Sure. Are there dungeons? Well, yes… but these similarities are fairly superficial. If every single thing were different then it wouldn’t be a Legend of Zelda game. It would be like criticizing a Mario game because he still jumps. While Skyward Sword never ceases to be a Zelda game, it also never ceases to bring new elements to the formula which are fresh and innovative.

The primary, inescapable innovation Skyward Sword brings is, of course, the controls. With Wii Motion Plus hardware, nearly every action in the game, every sword swing and every item, uses motion controls. This is both the games greatest triumph and its greatest fault. The controls work the way you want them to approximately 90% of the time. I say this without any sort of scientific backing, of course. The exact percentage could be more or it could be less, but the point is, every so often the controls will fight you instead of aid you, and it brings you out of the experience just as much as they bring you in when they work correctly.

When the controls are working, the game positively sings. Swordplay is fantastic, and while calling every fight a puzzle may be a tad generous, you cannot sleepwalk your way through any encounter. There are monsters that you can kill with no skill besides waggling, sure. Bats and generic green slimes are pretty much simple moving targets. But these monsters, in their generic state, mostly live on Skyloft and in Ferron Woods, the first area you visit. Pass that and you start meeting more vicious versions, and the electric slimes are a pure headache.

In the grandest fights, especially those against mini-bosses and their bigger, badder brethren, the precision needed, as well as the clever use of items elevates the combat beyond anything in the series to date. Pattern memorization is less useful, and quick reflexes and the ability to shift strategies on the fly become a much bigger part of the fighting.

Skyward Sword's Boss Fights are awesome.

Items in general are more interesting this time around, largely because of the motion control implementation. Bombs can be thrown or rolled, giving some variety to bomb puzzles and some interesting uses in combat situations. The bow, gust bag, and slingshot all work beautifully with the pointer, and the beetle is the single most useful addition to Link’s repertoire since the boomerang (which makes no appearance in this game, by the way).

The ability to upgrade these items is also a nice twist on the formula as well, though some upgrades are more useful than others, and I never felt like any of them were a must have, which is something of a shame.

Thankfully the ridiculous controller overlay can be removed eventually.

There was one type of item I never really used until the very end. It was, strangely enough, the shield. You get several kinds of shields throughout the game, but their usefulness was never apparent to me. Switching between the sword and shield always felt a little clumsy, and not fast enough to really react to the enemy attacks. This is partially due to the poor motion sensors in the nunchuck attachment. Furthermore, it always seemed like I received a shield right before going to an area where the type of shield I just received would be useless against the monsters there. The only time I used a shield readily was at the very end of the game, when I had finally acquired the Hylian shield and the remaining enemies were simply too tough to beat without a stronger defense than the ever useful jump.

Of course the best defense in the world is two fingers.

The way motion controls were implemented in other ways made the experience much better as well. Swimming in games has never been something I liked to do. The inverted control scheme always got in the way of being able to accurately handle the situation. Swimming in Skyward Sword, however, is much better. If a player were to imagine the controller in hand as if it were Link’s body, the front being the direction he’s swimming, then it becomes natural to move him about in the water. It’s nothing less than liberating from past control schemes.

The same can be said for flying through the skies around Skyloft. After a minute or two getting used to the sensitivity of the controller, I was able to fly around easily. It was, in fact, fun. This is not something I could readily say about most of the methods of travel in Zelda games, however much I loved Epona (don’t get me started on the boredom that was the train from Spirit Tracks). Flapping the loftwing’s wings felt natural and involving, and pulling off minor acrobatic tricks around the floating islands was entertaining. Leaping off of the bird and falling to an island for a landing never got old.


Simply put, the motion controls are a complete blast. In many ways they are superior for their individual tasks than regular controls, and in most others they are at least as capable. There were times I was more connected to my actions, however simple they may be – like thrusting a sword into the ground, than I have in any other before or since. In that respect, making a hardcore game with motion controls that not only work, but excel, the developers at Nintendo have succeeded.

But, and it is a big but, that is when the controls work. Very occasionally Link will do something that you simply did not intend. There are fights when you’ll try to swing your sword from the left, but instead Link will swing from the right, or vice-versa. Sometime you want to swing up when you actually swing down. This gets especially frustrating in boss fights when a miss-swing often results in an immediate and painful counter attack.

As frustrating as the occasional wrong swing may be, nothing is as frustrating as trying to stab into the screen. 70% of that 90% of failed motion controls I mentioned earlier could be set at the feet of this one motion. And it’s necessary against certain bosses. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing exactly what to do, and doing the motion, and instead Link flails wildly in every way except the simple stab.
On a side note, some reviewers I’ve read have said that they were frustrated about having to re-center the aim so often. Re-centering was never much of a bother to me, and seemed to be an elegant solution to the problem. Calibration was similarly painless, and only took a second before the game started up.

In general there is no denying that the controls work, and people will argue back and forth on the merits of motion vs non-montion controls, but I firmly come down in favor of them. They not only work better than regular controls in most instances, but they also do something much more important. They set Skyward Sword apart, and provide it with an identity all its own in the Zelda canon. Every dungeon, puzzle, and most encounters are built around the controls, and in doing so, the game charts a new way forward in the medium that simply hasn’t been done before. The controls aren’t gimmicks, and they aren’t broken. They work beautifully most of the time, and fail only occasionally. It’s the first true step forward for alternate forms of controls, and for that, any game afterward that implements this mastery owes homage to Skyward Sword.

But that’s just the nitty-gritty of the gameplay. There is much more to be said for the ways Skyward Sword innovates on the standard Zelda formula. The overworld has long been a staple of the Zelda franchise. It has been a place usually for travel and awe-inspiring vistas that give the player a sense of the scope of the world. In Skyward Sword, the overworld formula is severely overhauled, and for once in a positive fashion (Wind Waker’s ocean and Spirit Tracks’ railways were poor excuses for overworlds). Namely the “overworld” is split up into different mini-overworlds that all accomplish different tasks.

Flying around in the sky around Skyloft is Wind Waker’s ocean overworld done much better. It is easier to cross quickly, it provides a sense of space and distance, and as I mentioned before, most importantly, it is fun to fly. The sky is a little barren, there is no denying that. There could be more places to go, more things to do, but it’s nevertheless a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile the overworlds on the surface, while smaller, and less spacious, are all densely compact, full of interesting traversal, some puzzles, and a variety of encounters with opponents and characters. I’ve seen it said that these sections of the overworld are really just the dungeon extended into the entire region. That goes a little far, I think. Dungeons are especially condensed and built around very specific puzzles and pacing. These mini-overworlds are, however, a lot like light versions of the dungeon, and in that respect, the actual gameplay is always at the forefront of the activity of the player. It was always possible to grow bored of the overworlds of the past, but the quick traversal of the skies and the challenge of the surface world make the “overworld” another place to highlight the gameplay mechanics and involve the player.

And you'll go see some really neat places.

Since the game limits itself to only four major areas, the forest, a volcano, the desert and the sky, it’s inevitable that there is some extensive backtracking. The difference between backtracking here and in other games, however is in how Skyward Sword manages to show each area from an entirely new angle every time you return. The areas simply feel different, and the mechanics of each area change as well, though saying how is Spoiler Talk territory.

Another reason to return to each area involves a place called the Spirit Realm, sort of a shadow version of the world, in which Link must collect tears of the goddess to advance his abilities. These areas are guarded by these spirit warriors that can end your time there with a single blow.

While some people will simply despise these sections as mere fetch quests, I found the atmosphere and challenge a welcome variation from the typical gameplay. The spirit versions of these different areas are always serene and beautiful, and yet the entire ordeal is tense and frightening. The threat of the time limit and the creepy guardians will have players on their toes the entire time, and the sections are brief enough that they don’t wear out their welcome.

Speaking of fetch quests, many of the missions in the middle of the game send Link after everything imaginable, this is also true of the side quests the player will do for the inhabitants of Skyloft. Most of these quests are actually quite interesting and involving, especially because of the characters who give you these tasks, but when I was first exposed to them I had the sinking feeling that many gamers will have. If, however, players manage to get past this initial distaste for the mere thought, they will find fetch quests that are actually enjoyable (especially if they have been keeping their eyes open and already know where the various items are).

You'll have Fun Fun

The presentation of the game is at times gorgeous, and at other times terribly dated. There is no question that the developers squeezed every last drop out of the Wii hardware to get this game done right. The painterly visuals can be breathtaking at times, and this coming from someone who really didn’t like them when the visuals were first revealed.

That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, however. At times they will simply be too blurry to have any impact, and some textures look terrible even at medium distance. The terrain and architecture are simply too blocky, and the jagged edges of some objects look ragged enough to hurt. The game, and pretty much every game on the Wii, especially the pretty ones, are just begging for the HD of truly modern systems. I can only imagine (and drool over) what the designers at Nintendo could have done with this game if they had that kind of horsepower and disc storage space.

As it is, it's a little bit like digging up a game from the past.

But as important as all these elements are to talk about, those of you who know how my reviews work know that I’m the kind of gamer who is in it for the story. In that respect, Skyward Sword may be the best in the series yet. Without going into spoilers, this game is where we truly see the legend begin. There have been hints of a master time line for the series in games past, but nothing concrete. And even if the new Zelda Encyclopedia, which was recently released in Japan, didn’t have the official time line in its pages, this game would settle it, without a doubt, that the series does in fact have a time line, and that they are interconnected.

But those are meta considerations. The specific story that Skyward Sword tells feels very much like the legend it is. It’s probably as close to living out a myth, and yet still feeling the reality of it at the same time, as anyone has achieved yet in the medium (perhaps in any medium). The characters are larger than life, more so than they’ve ever been, and yet they are simultaneously the most human too. I felt these characters in a way I haven’t since Ocarina of Time, and I’m not nearly as susceptible to emotional attachment to characters for little reason as I was then. The emotional connections I got with Link, Zelda, Ghirahim, Impa and even the minor ones like Groose were all very strong.

And you HATE him at first. HATEHATEHATE.

Zelda has always been distant in past Zelda games. Not so in Skyward Sword. She’s your best friend from childhood. She feels real and grounded, making later revelations all the more crazy and amazing. Link has obvious motivations and feelings, as does the villain, as does Impa. I can’t believe how much growth comes from some of these characters, and from those you least expect it.

The characterization in this game is the highlight of the storytelling. These are some of the most interesting characters in a Zelda game in ages. Every shop owner has character. Each one is identifiable at a glance and is instantly memorable. And I’m not just talking about Beetle, whom we’ve seen before. I’m talking about the upgrade shop guy, and the potions family, and the item check girl and the weapons dealer. Their animations, the emotions on their faces, and the excellent sound effects and minor voice acting all add up to a magical collections of denizens for the Skyward Sword world. Even the enemies have brilliant sound effects. The cries of surprise and woe that come from knocking an enemy bokoblin off of a tower or balancing rope are priceless.

The plot itself is also different from past Zelda titles in that Zelda and Impa are, in their own way, having a completely different adventure from the player. Zelda isn’t held captive somewhere. She is an active participant in the events of the story. Quite frankly, during the first half of the game, Link’s quest to find her is the background to the real story, which is Zelda’s quest. Link sees all this unfold mere minutes after it has happened. He is a step or two behind the main action, as is Ghirahim, the bad guy for the majority of the game, and everything rides on who will catch up first.

Even though the pacing of the plot is really well done for the most part, it is also easy to see the seams. Some of the fetch quests seem shoe-horned in. There is one late-game quest in particular that, while I enjoyed it for what it was, had me utter a verbal “Oh, come on!” when it was introduced. These late bits slow the story’s pacing down pretty significantly, though it is otherwise well done.

The ending is climactic and epic in all the right ways. The final battle feels ominous, and is ridiculously difficult if you don’t have the right tools. The closure and little touches and surprises are perfect and fitting.

The music in this game mostly lives up to the quality expected of the Zelda franchise, which has long had some of the best music in gaming. I say mostly because there are times and places where the music just doesn’t seem as great, and there aren’t as many memorable tracks as there are in Ocarina of Time. The title track however, the Ballad of the Goddess, is musical manna from heaven. Somehow this track, a brilliant backward and reworked version of Zelda’s Lullaby from Ocarina of Time, has launched itself to become one of my all-time favorite Zelda tunes, period.

Closing Comments:

In many ways that final sentiment, that a reworked and backwards rendition of an Ocarina track could ascend to such great heights, is a great metaphor for this game as a whole. In may ways Skyward Sword shares the same backbone as Ocarina of Time. It has Link, Zelda, the Triforce, a classic good vs. evil epic quest and many of the same items and tropes, and yet in many ways it’s backwards, and tweaked and reworked until something so familiar is simultaneously vastly different, and in its own way, exuberant and exalting. While it has some hang-ups in comparison to contemporary games, and minor flaws that refuse to be ignored, there is no question that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is one of the best games of the year, and quite possibly the best Legend of Zelda game of all time.

STAR RATING: (4 1/2)

Four and one-half Stars

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.

Spoiler Talk:

There are so many things I could talk about here, but when I think spoilers, the very first thing I think about is endings. Boy what an ending. The lead in, everything from the final dungeon, which was brilliant, to Ghirahim stealing Zelda and Link’s desperate fight against the bokoblin hordes to get to her, to the revelation of demise, is so well paced. The final confrontation with Ghirahim is a visual stunner, as is the revelation of Ghirahim’s true nature as Demise’s sword (nicely paralleling Fi and Link’s relationship). But Ghirahim is still ultimately a pushover, so it’s great when Demise shows up and takes charge.

That final fight with Demise is epic. The lightning strikes overhead, the mirrored surface of the otherworldly plane, the way the fight goes from relatively easy to outlandishly hard as soon as he lights up his sword with that first lightning strike – it all makes it feel like you’re fighting some sort of god.

And he does share some visual similarities with Ares from the God of War games. I love how he was designed visually. He looks every bit the dark god, and the force of evil he should be. Imposing, freakish yet grand, powerful yet deliberate. Freaking perfect.

The one problem I have with the fight is how easy it is to break if you have the right tools. The Hylian shield makes you pretty much invulnerable if you use it correctly, and if you have the Guard + potion (which isn’t hard to obtain) you’re pretty much unstoppable. Combine this with the Potions Medal and you’re basically fighting him on training wheels. I was able to appreciate the fight for what it was, especially when I went into the fight the first time without the potion and was trounced. However, I could see how that invincible strategy might ruin it for some people.

The whole cinematic you watch once you beat him is excellent as well. The curse he speaks, which ties Link, Zelda and Demise into an eternal conflict, sets up the rest of the series beautifully. Here is the origin of everything. This is the beginning of the cycle that ties together the spirit of the hero (Link), the soul of the goddess (Zelda) and the hatred of Demise (every bad guy, especially Ganon/dorf) in every game from here on out. The mythical synergy of that moment, tying up threads that have been a part of my gamer life for years into this one point in time, was perfect.

How wildly fantastical was it when Zelda is revealed to be the mortal reincarnation of the Goddess Hylia? It’s so much more impacting because of how human she is at the same time. She is Link’s best friend, and they act like it. It feals real. As does the unspoken, under the surface love that is so obviously there (and come on, Nintendo! One kiss! That’s all I ask!) That relationship between Zelda and Link has, right beside the relationship of Demise and his successors to the heroes, been one of the key stones of the series, and Skyward Sword nailed it.

Other elements of the final cinematic that I loved were the revelation of the identity of the old woman as that of Impa. I guessed this much earlier in the game, but I felt the way the revelation played out was spot on.

The way Groose’s character changed over time was also excellent. I never really liked his character design (that… that hair…) and he was as annoying as he could possibly be at the start of the game, but by the end he’s really managed to change into a character that I liked. Not loved, by no means, but liked.

Fi’s last scene was very touching. I didn’t realize how attached I’d gotten to her, despite her little annoyances that are inherent in any helping voice like that. The humorous percentages, the robotic sensibilities and the inability to understand human emotions were all wrapped up in this strange but likeable figure (and the crush the one robot has on her is cute and funny). To see her then go to an endless sleep as the seal on Demise’s consciousness in the Master Sword, it wasn’t teary or misty-eyed, but it was sad all the same.

The cinematics that played during the credits that outlined some of the important moments of Zelda’s off-screen quest were wonderful and really drove the point home that there were two adventures happening this whole time. The scene after the cinematics was also great and full of happiness and joy, with the perfect send-off that implied Link and Zelda actually got together (though what I would have given for an actual kiss or something, my word).

All the side characters were great. The Mogmas were a cool additional race, along with their gloves which was a cool addition to the gameplay. I loved the Goron archeologist. I can’t get over how great the shop-keepers were. I loved the dragons and great spirits, each one had great personality (though when Faron sent me on that last fetch quest… I thought I was going to smack something.)

And speaking of that fetch quest, I know most people are going to hate it with an undying passion, but I actually enjoyed it. Of course I took it from a relaxing, zen-like approach and just had fun floating through the water after the bouncing musical note things. It was very peaceful.

How many more things could I talk about? There is simply so much stuff! How genius were the puzzle and dungeon designs? How adorable where those robots? Could Timeshift stones, a desert and a boat be any more genius? There’s too much to cover in one review.

So how many of you have finished the game? Sound off in the comments! Did you like it as much as I did? I didn’t mention a lot here in Spoiler Talk, and that’s partially because I want you to drive the conversation. What did you think of the game? Just please mark your comment with a **SPOILERS** tag so other people can be aware.