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.

The Long of It: Continue reading


“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.

“Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” Single-player Review

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

A deceptively devious and delightful game.

November 22, 2011 – Uncharted has always been a series that has done fantastic things with setting, characters and cinematic storytelling. In many ways, Naughty Dog has taken the next step up, crafting a story that manages to avoid some of the strange elements of the first two (no maniacal generals using super-powered sap here) while building upon the existing characters with interesting new additions and small tweaks that make these characters deeper than they already were. At the same time, the gameplay still has all the hallmarks of what made the first two games great, as well as the tiny stumbles that remain a pain in the player’s side.

Beginning with the game’s most important aspect, the story, I can say with surety that it still follows in Indiana Jones’ footsteps marvelously while adding its own twists and flairs that show for every sensibility it takes from that venerable film series, it rises to the occasion to chart *coughcough* a unique path for itself.

The Characters are what really set Uncharted apart.

Describing the story, how it succeeds, and where it is its strongest, is difficult to do without spoilers or gross generalities. In that sense, saying that the story is the best yet for the franchise is about as succinct as I can put it. Oh, I can mention that Drake explores many places and exotic locations. I can say that the game examines his relationship with Sully. The villains, Mrs. Marlowe and Talbot, are easily the most memorable villains yet. I can even say that new additions like Charlie are strong, different and likeable. Furthermore, the game takes the player on a wild ride and never lets you go; but what does all that really say?

A lot of what I could say means little, but there are two things you really should know. First of all, the writers of this game change up the formula in interesting ways. There are entire sections that involve no shooting or platforming whatsoever and have a great deal of impact, with some of the greatest vistas in the medium. There are chase scenes in crowded marketplaces, horse-mounted combat, desperate firefights in burning buildings, life or death brawls in the opened cargo hold of a plane in mid-flight and much more. Things don’t always go the way you expect, some surprises really catch you off guard, and perceptions are played with almost constantly throughout the game.

Marlowe and Talbot, while never fleshed out themselves, are menacing and memorable.

The second, and most important thing to know, is that Nathan, his past and motivations, are finally explored a little bit. It isn’t the most thorough examination of a character, but it adds some depth to the charming rogue we all love. We see him questioned, we see the first real prods at his motivations and emotions, and we see him finally try to move beyond his past. But for as much as this game’s story brings events to a close (and believe me, they could end the entire series right here), there are still lingering questions, and plenty of room to expand and explore these characters, Nathan in particular.

There's no doubt that Drake has seen his share of troubles.

The gameplay is much the same as in previous entries in the series, which means it has all the same highlights as well as flaws. Platforming is enjoyable, occasionally very clever and occasionally very frustrating. The ability to move around the environment is as interesting as ever, and firefights while climbing keeps you invested in he platforming action. However, there are also many times when the door is locked (how convenient) and Drake has to find a way around to the other side to unlock the door. It gets a little repetitive.

The level design is impeccable, and some levels go by without a hitch. The cruise-ship level, for example, is fantastically built, and Naughty Dog really knows how to turn your world on its side (yes, there is a pun involved).

Oh how I love puns!

Usually I’m able to follow the path smoothly, naturally going from one segment to the next, fulfilling my role in an action packed roller-coaster ride, but accidental deaths can be common in certain circumstances, especially when the visual clues that the developers use to steer you through environments aren’t obvious enough. There are times I’m sure I can get up onto a ledge, or leap from one edge to another, but for whatever reason the controls refuse to allow me passage. This can cause especially frustrating deaths when you have gunmen at your heels.

I’ve seen at least one website where this game was compared to Dragon’s Lair, and while the game isn’t as linear and do-or-die as that particular example, there are times when it doesn’t feel far from it.

The stealth segments are short and almost always end in a gun fight, which I suspect is intentional, because honestly Drake’s ability to move stealthily in this game is pretty much nill, but the short while they last they are fun breaks in the otherwise endless platforming and bullet spewing. The puzzles are similarly fun breaks, and while they are generally quite simple they are also well designed and involve a nice amount of level traversal and some light thinking.

Stealth in Uncharted is the equivalent of a preemptive strike in a gun fight.

For those of you wondering, yes, Nathan Drake is still a notorious mass-murderer. I dropped hundreds of mercenaries and pirates and cultists in pursuit of the goal, and let me tell you, I still sleep good at night. This is simply one area of the game that I think will never be addressed in the story, and really it is one of the least important things to address. After all, pretty much every fight I ever got into was one of self-defense. I can hardly fault Nathan for choosing to be the guys who survives at the end.

I’ve heard the gunplay isn’t as responsive as previous games, and while I haven’t played those games recently enough to know the accuracy of that statement, I can assure you that the gunplay does have issues. At times the reticule is super jumpy and aiming at a target is far harder than it should be (there is little to no aim assist in this game). Throwing back grenades also seems to be a bit more hit and miss than it should. When it works it’s a great sensation, and when it doesn’t you feel cheated of your life. I think the problem has to do with how close you have to be to the grenade to throw it back. There were times when I swear I was right on top of the thing and I couldn’t throw it for the life of me.

Don't worry, Drake, there are always more bullets.

When it comes to melee fights, however, the gameplay has taken a serious up-turn from Uncharted 2. You can tell that the team took some minor cues from Batman: Arkham Asylum and worked it into their game. Combat flows smoothly and essentially moves between three different button actions – punch, counter, grab/break grab. These work effectively and when some environmental elements are thrown in (bottles or fish, for example) you get some pretty nifty fight sequences.

As the game progresses enemies become more difficult; not through more intelligent AI, but rather through through how much they become bullet sponges. Of course this is a problem that has carried over from the last two games, though Uncharted 3 manages to be better in this than its predecessors. That’s not to say that the AI isn’t decent. It is. Certain enemy types work different than others, some gun men will flank you – some charge you – some snipe you – some are heavily armored, etc, but there were maybe three different kinds of shooters, and two kinds of melee brawlers. Enemy variety is definitely something I would like to have seen more of, especially by the eighth time you fight a big heavy brawler who has the exact same move pattern as all the previous heavy brawlers. Some gunfights in the game felt dynamic, fun and energetic. Others felt like a slug fest I was perpetually losing. I’m still not sure how I finally got by the mini-boss on the pirate ship.

A pirate's life for Drake.

But while I make a fuss out of these little niggling issues, I must point out that they are in fact niggling, minor and insignificant, and they only really show themselves for the issues they are because the rest of the game is so polished.

And what a polish! The graphics in this game are gorgeous; not quite the step up from Uncharted 1 to 2, but significant nonetheless. From the decayed glory of a French Chateau, to the rolling waves of a stormy sea, to the hot sand dunes of the desert, this game is gorgeous, and provides some of the best visuals of any game to date. Of course the number of vertexes and polygons can only do so much; the design and attention to detail are what really make the game as gorgeous as it is, and the team at Naughty Dog have managed to create some truly beautiful sights.

Would you deny its beauty?

Closing Comments:

Whatever I say here cannot really do justice for this game. If you love that Indiana Jones sensibility to characters, setting and story – if you love more than capable third-person shooters – if you love superbly crafted works of interactive art – then play Uncharted 3. No amount of tiny flaws could take away from what Naughty Dog has managed here. If you own a Playstation 3, but not the entire Uncharted series, and especially this 3rd entry, the crown-jewel of the bunch, you are doing yourself a serious disservice. If you don’t own a Playstation 3, you have no better reason than these games to make it up to yourself and get one. This game is a shoe-in as nomination for game-of-the-year, and is the best part of a game series that has become an instant classic and one of the greatest ever made.

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:

The breadth of places Drake travels to in this game is fantastic. Everywhere from London pubs to France, Syria, Yemen, pirate junked-shipyards to the expected ancient lost city, the Atlantis of the Sands (which was gorgeous, wasn’t it?). Choosing a favorite is hard, especially considering that gorgeous lost city, but the Chateau in France probably takes the cake. The scenery is gorgeous, the level design is terrific and the attention to detail by the team at Naughty Dog is some of the best in the business, coming in alongside teams like Irrational Games’ work on Rapture. Of course the action set-pieces were terrific as well, even if the horse chase felt a tad too reminiscent of Indiana Jones (wait… is that really a bad thing?).

And how about those desert scenes, eh?
Part of it confused the heck out of me – I still want to know whose voice he heard in his head, etc. – but it was all beautiful. The scene where Nathan gazes at the stars was particularly striking, and the mirages were marvelously done.

For all this game was gorgeous, the character moments really made this game pop. The flashback to Nathan’s childhood – his first meeting with Sully and Marlowe, and the theft at the Museum – was great. I really wanted to know what happened between Nathan and Elena since Uncharted 2, but the emotional scene where Nathan’s head in in her lap and he says “I’m Sorry.” … my apologies… I was… I was getting a little… teary-eyed there. That had to be one of the most simple, yet touching moments in gaming, and while the other scenes didn’t quite rise to that same level, they were all great.

And how about that ending, eh? Fantastic, wasn’t it? The entire city crumbling around you (though that bit did seem a little too similar to the last game’s ending), the bad guys are defeated in spectacular fashion with nary a bloated boss battle in sight (much more interesting to have Marlowe disappear into the quicksand and to have a knife fight with Talbot),

Snarl all you want, Marlowe, you've got a mouthful of sand in your future.

Nathan and Elena and Sully are about to fly off into the sunset, the plane itself a connection to the first game, and everything is brought to a close with the sense that, should Naughty Dog choose to, they could simply end it here, and that’s the last we’d ever see of our heroes. We even see Drake close the book (sorta) on this whole thing by saying that he has nothing to prove (thus finishing off his seeming need to prove himself worthy of the Drake legacy).

But my word, how many little bits are left hanging. Of course, the real discussion would revolve around one simple question: What is the “deception” in the game’s title, exactly? On the one hand it can very much refer directly to Sir Francis Drake’s deception about what he found on his mission for Queen Elizabeth. On the other, it may very well refer to Nathan’s deception of everyone in his life about his true identity (I vote for both, of course – Naughty Dog, you scoundrels).

Quick note: I really like Charlie's character. Great addition. Really breaks up your expectations.

I was shocked when Mrs. Marlowe revealed that she knew so much about Drake, and his secrets, and he did not deny them. So who is he really? Is he truly just a street urchin with a fascination for the man who’s name adorned his orphanage? Is there something deeper than that? How did a little boy learn so much at an orphanage as to become steeped in Drake lore and have the ability and determination to seek out the answers to the man’s mysteries? I mean, nun knowledge may be fascinating and all, but… It doesn’t seem to make sense.

This game started plucking at the threads of who Nathan really is at the heart of his character. We’ve seen something of his background, and the darker truths about his past have had one layer of mystery taken away, but so much remains. Add in the complications of his relationships with Sully, Elena and everyone else, and there is plenty of fodder for the next game – and let’s not kid ourselves, there will be another game.

Though how they can top set-pieces like this one I have no idea.

Let me, really briefly(ish), discuss some possibilities of where this might go. Okay, the ending of this game has laid it out that Nathan seems to be ready to put his current life behind him in favor of a life with Elena. Beautiful. If the series ends here, I would be happy enough. Of course it will continue since it makes so much money. So, how can they continue it without ruining this image? I don’t want them to keep pulling an Indiana Jones on this, where each game(movie) ends with Nathan(Indy) once again out of a relationship because of off-screen issues.

Believe it or not, I would love it if the next game began in the middle of Nathan’s new domestic life. Take a Heavy Rain approach to the setting for a minute. Let the player explore Nathan’s marriage with Elena briefly. Does he have a kid? Is he satisfied with daily life (An interesting and wonderful answer to this might be “yes”)? And then have him be pulled back (unwillingly?) into his former life. Perhaps it has something to do with this unnamed father of his? Something that happened to him at the orphanage? Some brush with a dangerous someone while he was in the care of some nuns (and who is better at keeping long hidden secrets than the Catholic Church, eh)? What effect would this tumbling back into danger have on Nathan and his relationship to Elena and Sully (particularly if it is revealed in the process that he isn’t who he always said he was)? There is so much material to mine here.

And Chateaus to burn down!

Dear reader, let me address, nay beg, Naughty Dog for a moment… *ahem* – Naughty Dog, please (please, please, please) show us something new about Nathan’s character. Evolve him. Don’t leave him where he’s at, with half-answered questions, and please (please, please, please) don’t take him backwards either. You can’t run this series off of Nathan forever, so start planning for that future now. What if Nathan does have kids? How does he relate to them? How does he father them? You can begin to form a family lineage right here, where each generation has new character, and new personality to draw from. A game or two from now you might have a whole new Drake to explore, and the possibilities for the series become endless! But that has to begin right now. Let Drake grow and change into a father.

Indiana Jones had a purpose that drove him in his adventures. He believed in two things: 1. knowledge is for all of humanity; 2. bad guys don’t have the right to monopolize it, and the power it brings, for themselves. What does Nathan have in all this: 1. Treasure = Money. Money = good. 2. It would kinda suck if a bad guy had the power to rule/destroy the world, so I better stop them.

But now we see glimpses of something deeper. He was trying to live up to the legacy of Sir Francis Drake. He felt like he has to prove himself. Sure, but may I ask why? Yes, by the end of the game we know he has nothing left to prove, but there is still so much to work with here. What makes Drake tick?

So, dear Naughty Dog, please (please, please, please) give Nathan a good, personal reason to be out there again, doing what we all love to see him do; namely, explore lost cities, search for ancient secrets and make wisecracks while shooting and climbing everything in sight.

“Fable III” Review

Albion needs a Hero. Albion needs a King.

Jan 5, 2011 – I sat upon my newly won throne, looking down upon the former king, my brother, the man I had despised the most these past months. It was he who oppressed the peoples of Albion. He who betrayed everything our family stood for. He… who sentenced her to death. I knew now what had driven him to such evil, and the weight of that responsibility was bearing down upon me, but still I hated him. He looked up at me, seeing the emotion behind my eyes, and I could see his certainty, determination and even… relief, behind his. I held his life in my hands. A life I had sworn to snuff out in vengeance. And I felt pity for him. I decided to be a better man than my brother that day and do for him what he did not do for Elise. I spared his life.

Though he didn't deserve it, the Jerk!

Fable III is a game built upon promise, choice and consequence, and it meets the challenge of doing these things admirably. The first half of the game is dominated by political intrigue, alliances and rebellion. The second half is dominated by what happens after you win the crown. You are called upon to make moral decisions and either keep your campaign promises, or break them. While moral quandaries are nothing new in videogames, keeping or breaking the promises made in a bid for kingship is a novel concept that is rarely explored in videogames, and while Fable III isn’t built to treat it with the true gravity such a situation might call for, they manage to capture it to a degree yet unseen. Furthermore, these decisions are not all black and white. Do you keep the promises you’ve made to your followers now, and possibly doom them all later, or break your promises, earn the enmity of your former friends, but save all their lives? Lionhead Studios, and its charismatic leader, Peter Molyneux, have created a very good follow up to Fable II, and while the game still has many of the problems of its predecessors it manages to chart new waters to create the best Fable experience yet.

And John Cleese Is Your Butler!

The land of Albion is caught between two worlds, the past and the future. It is a time of industrial revolution, a Dickensian world where orphans work in sooty factories, mercenaries carry flintlocks and muskets, and the aristocracy rides high on the backs of the lower classes. You are the prince, brother to the king, and you worry about the people of your kingdom under his ever more tyrannical rule. When you confront him about it you are forced into an evil decision of life against life, and so the fire of rebellion is born in you. But you need allies, and so you travel the countryside, winning the support of the impoverished and disenfranchised. With their aid, you will overthrow your brother, the tyrant, and bring peace to Albion. Or so you might believe. But there is another threat that nears Albion. One far greater than any mortal foe you’ve yet faced.

YOUR FAMILY!!! Well, actually no, something even worse than that, but still...

The story of Fable III is the most well-developed, intricate and interesting to date, and the world is unique in videogames, taking place during a time rarely visited. The characters are well made and feel unique, with distinct motivations and great voice acting. The fantasy elements are very much present, but all the more enjoyable for their uniqueness in Albion. This isn’t a land of sword-and-sorcery with wizards and elves around every corner, and I find that to be refreshing in a time when fantasy in videogames is either World of Warcraft or Dragon Age. Really it’s more similar to the high fantasy of The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, though obviously much lighter-hearted.

The plot is actually quite good.

Fable III goes a couple steps further than just providing a great tale for the main story; it also provides a number of side quests, most built to add to the humor and charm of the game and provide a fun distraction. Sometimes these little quests provide as much or more satisfaction than the action in the main story, with particular standouts being quests such as being sucked into the table-top game of a bunch of nerdy wizards, acting out the plays of a long-dead playwright in another dimension or playing deadly chess against a psychopathic treasure chest. The variety of the side quests are hardly lacking, and hours could be spent doing them alone. You can even complete many of them after the game (assuming your choices haven’t closed them off) relieving people who want to finish the game first and deal with other things later.

Will you be evil or good?

One change that will be either loved or hated is the way the menus and upgrading is done. The menus are all represented in three-dimensions by the “Sanctuary” a special place that acts as a sort of Bat-cave or Fortress of Solitude for the Hero. For those of you who don’t get the references, think of a very spacious and multi-roomed closet. Inside you see the actual outfits, weapons, multiplayer elements and wealth you accumulate. Some will hate it on principle because they will say it slows down the pace of the game. In truth, it doesn’t slow it down that much, and there is no lag whatsoever when you press the start button to go to the sanctuary. Furthermore, there are ways to skip through the sanctuary that should make complainers happy. What the Sanctuary adds is immersion and interaction, which I’m actually quite fond of.

You can choose various weapons and upgrade them through use.

Similarly, the Road to Rule is a mystical road that you can travel to which represents your plot progress as well as your upgrades in the form of chests that you can open with Guild Seals. Guild Seals simply represent your Experience points. Again, it adds a nice sense of interaction and atmosphere. By never seeing an actual menu the game pulls you in more effectively. If only the loading screens didn’t work against that in their own way.

You will suffer the loss of allies and friends along the way.

If there’s one thing all the Fable games have managed to do well in spades, it is their charm. The design is beautiful and whimsical. Characters walk a fine line between pomp, formality and ridiculousness. The music is floaty and enchanting and the world is full of a particularly British humour. Just watch the opening cinematic to see what I mean. Perhaps it is something only possible in the hands of a British studio, much like the outlandish and weird nature of games like Bayonetta is only possible in the hands of the Japanese. No matter how it is accomplished it is one of the game’s greatest points and always makes the Fable games worth playing. Fable III follows in that tradition, but like Fable II it still cannot quite grasp the full fairy-tale feel of the original game.

The opening cinematic really is fantastic.

But the game lives up to its heritage in unhappy ways as well. Fable III tried to ditch the tedious nature of RPGs by eliminating the health bar (a welcome move in my book,) but they failed to eliminate the true perpetrators of that particular fault. An easy way to gain Guild Seals (Experience Points) is to make friends with villagers and accept friendship quests from them. The problem is, these quests are essentially currier or fetch quests. The wonderful variety found in the other side quests is completely lacking when it comes to these friendship quests, making their completion an exercise in boredom. Worse is the job system which is fun for the first five minutes and a chore for the next five hours. It might not have been such an issue if you got more money for each success, or if your final victory in the game wasn’t so closely tied to your royal funds. Essentially if you don’t buy every building in the land, don’t do enough jobs and don’t save up through hours and hours of game time your ability to get the best ending is utterly screwed. While the mechanics of the idea aren’t utterly broken, it turns much of the latter half of the game into a chore, bringing your process to a halt.

Peter Molynuex is a great guy, but his vision doesn't always work out.

Like the previous games, the graphics are good but iffy at times and plain buggy at others. Textures pop in and out, character models sometimes spawn inside of one another and I saw more than one Balvarine stuck in a tree like a transporter accident out of Star Trek.. These glitches aren’t anywhere near the technical travesty of a game like Fallout: New Vegas, but they can be very upsetting when encountered.

Furthermore, while many of the moral choices are presented in interesting gray terms, you’re still essentially funneled down either the good or bad path. It isn’t a dire criticism of the game as it does harken to that fairy-tale element that I enjoy so much about these games, but it should still be noted.

Despite that qualm, the moral choices are still the heart and greatest strength of the game, providing structure for the plot, and creating world-changing consequences. Should you preserve the natural beauty of Bower Lake, or should you drain it to build a mine for funds that could save the Kingdom? If you choose to drain the lake, you open up a whole new area to explore and new quests to take, but all at the expense of one of Albion’s prettiest sights, hidden items at the lake and your morality meter. This is only one choice that can literally change the game. As king you will find yourself very much in charge of your destiny, and never more responsible for the denizens of a virtual world outside of the Sims games.

Dream of Freedom, little chickie.

Closing Comments:

Fable III is not going to change anyone’s minds about the Fable franchise or Peter Molyneux and his unique vision. What it does do, however, is provide the best Fable experience yet, by telling a great story with lots of charm, humor and wit. If you’re up for rebellion, high fantasy, political machinations and kicking chickens while wearing a giant chicken suit, then you really have to try out Fable III.

STAR RATING: (4 and ½ Stars out of 5)

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 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:

“Damn it! Why didn’t I choose to let the villagers die instead of Elise? And why do I have such an emotional reaction to the death of a character I hardly know?” That was the quandary I found myself in less than a half-hour into the game. “Surely,” I thought, “I’ll still be able to save her. They won’t kill off a character who is obviously so important to my main character, right?”
Actually, they absolutely will. And now I think I know why I had such a strong reaction. The whimsical nature of the world of Albion, the charm and humor, all seem comforting and safe. But this belies the tough and real choices, some of which have no fully good outcome, that riddle Fable III. I wasn’t prepared for it, and it shocked me in a way that games rarely do. I was tempted to restart the game then and there, but instead I soldiered on, and that shock and pain became a part of the story of my rebellion. I became attached to the story.
It is a testament to how good the team at Lionhead are at giving their creations character that I already felt I knew Elise for a long time after such a brief span. There isn’t a main character in the game who doesn’t feel wholly unique, and if not realistic at least likeable.

Or hate, whichever is more appropriate, actually. Hm... love to hate?

In retrospect it might come across as a cheap way to grab the audience, killing off the girl like that. But it was my choice that sent her to her execution, and so it gained so much more weight and importance for it.
It was the little (and sometimes big) tugs of emotion that really got me hooked, and it’s those same emotions that will have me remembering Fable III in the years to come. That experience won’t be the same for everybody, but the experience did inform my final score.

“Metroid: Other M” Review

So, so good. So, so bad. A study in specific flaws vs. a great whole.

Dec 19, 2010 – Metroid: Other M is a game built out of clashing elements. Nintendo partnering with Team Ninja? Absurd. But it happened, and what came of it is exactly the logical conclusion of the partnership. What you’ll get is a game built of mostly excellent mechanics, smooth gameplay, well-done graphics, and a hit or miss story. It is a game of contrasts and paradoxes, where the single best thing about the game is Samus Aran, and the single worst thing about the game is Samus Aran.

Metroid is something of a legendary franchise, despite never having the same mainstream impact that the other Nintendo franchises are known for, such as Mario or The Legend of Zelda. While I have never completed a Metroid game before this one (believe me, I plan to when I get around to my Metroid Trilogy collection) I am familiar with the major elements of the other games. The gameplay, a blend of open-world adventuring, shooting and platforming, is a staple that other similar games are still labeled after; ‘Metroidvania’ style games. First person shooters finally became distinct enough to drop the “Doom Clone” label, but no game of Metroid’s type have ever escaped its gravity. A sense of isolation, even claustrophobia at times, is also a key component to most Metroid games. Chilling and haunting sci-fi music is another tenet of the games, as is the general silence of the main protagonist.

Other M is very much a Metroid game, though it charts new territory as well.

So with that background in mind, it was something of a shock when Other M looked to stray from some of those key concepts. The gameplay stayed fairly similar in many respects, but there were weird mechanics that involved pointing the controller at the screen to fire missiles, or study the environment in first person. Isolation was an iffy subject, because by the looks of it you were teaming up with this group of space marines now. And the biggest change of all was the silence of the protagonist. The new emphasis on story promised a much more vocal Samus Aran than has ever previously been seen. And these gambles have had some unexpected payoffs, and some dreaded blunders.

The game takes place some time after Super Metroid, the SNES game that still holds a treasured place on many top games of all time lists. In fact the first cinematic re-lives the last moments of that game, bringing a terrific flair to it that serves only to enhance the original. Samus Aran is torn up over the loss of “the Baby,” a young metroid that imprinted on her and thought she was its mother. The Baby sacrificed itself protecting Samus from “Mother Brain” the villain of that title. She wanders the galaxy for a while before stumbling across a distress signal. When she goes to investigate she runs across a number of old friends and comrades from her time in the Galactic Federation military; they’ve also shown up to investigate under orders to save anybody they can and figure out what’s going on in this vessel. Leading the group is Adam Malkovich, Samus’s former commander, who she sees as a sort of father figure. It is alluded to that they have a troubled past. This, and the mystery of the events on the ship, all unfold over the course of the game.

The presence of Adam Malkovich is an unwanted distraction during the first half of the game.

The plot is actually quite strong. The mystery of what happened on the ship pulled me in rather effectively and I wanted to know what exactly was going on by the end. There are still some flaws. A mystery that had me fascinated early on is never resolved in a satisfactory manner, for instance, and Adam doesn’t authorize Samus to use her equipment in the exact moments when she obviously needs it. But overall, I actually quite enjoyed my time exploring the ship and its mysteries.

The characterization is where things get touchy. Samus is given some significant emotional issues and character flaws that serve to make her character more interesting. However, the way these flaws are presented make Samus look like an emotional train wreck. The addition of a voice makes it all worse. Her monologues are heavily melodramatic, but the delivery is wooden and dull. She is portrayed as being a scared little girl trapped in a woman’s body who has loads and loads of daddy issues. It’s not that these elements are inherently bad. Far from it. I think they could serve to make her a very interesting character. But the presentation is so heavy-handed, so over-written, that any real weight is robbed from her characterization. It’s hard to take her seriously as simply a capable woman, much less a space-faring bounty hunter.

Samus stares into the sunset.

It is important to note, however, that these presentational issues are most grating in the first few hours of the game and become far less pronounced and bearable as the game goes on. By the end of my time with Metroid: Other M, these issues were several hours behind me and I was having a great time with the game.
And there really is a lot of great things to be said for the game. Though you’re not as isolated as you were in the earlier Metroid titles or the Metroid Prime Trilogy, isolation is still very much a part of the game. Traversing the dangerous interior of the ship is still a lonely and haunting experience. This is, of course, aided by great level design, fantastic music that draws on the many classic sounds of the franchise, and the nice pacing of the story elements.

Gameplay is the true star of the game, and Team Ninja’s expertise in the area of combat especially shows. Fighting the many threats that Samus faces is tense and exciting, but free of the frustrations that one would expect of having only a D-pad and two or three buttons. In fact, the greatest triumph of the team may be how I almost never noticed that I wasn’t using an analogue stick. For a game with movement in three dimensions, this is an accomplishment bordering on a miracle. Furthermore the implementation of the dodge mechanic was an inspired choice that makes combat smooth and largely free of frustration, and the shooting mechanics are satisfying.

There are also some really sweet take-down moves.

The ability to hold up the gun to charge missiles was a good addition as well. But I found the ability to heal using the same method to be largely unnecessary. It is only useable in that manner when you are near death, but it was rare that I reached that point of near-defeat while having enough time to charge up my health bar. A more frequent scenario was finding myself on the verge of death during a boss fight, only to get killed the moment I stopped to charge up my health.

For several hours, I wasn’t sure what to think of switching over on occasion to using the Wii remote pointer in first-person mode, but by the end of the game it felt natural and I appreciated having he added dimension to gameplay.

Searching the environment for clues.

The mechanic worked very effectively and added a great feel of exploration, not unlike an adventure game (although sequences where you were forced into first person to find specific elements in the environment got annoying).

Its use in combat is a little less smooth, but I like how it forced me to think strategically about how best to approach a combat situation so that I could use my missiles without being hit. I eventually got fast enough switching back and forth between first and third person that I was never even bothered by the fact that you can’t move while in first person. The down time for me during the switch was about as long as pulling up the iron-sights in a first person shooter. In the end, I love the addition of the mechanic, and find it to be a fascinating and creative use of the Wii controller’s functionality.

Show 'em how it's done.

Again, I cannot emphasize enough how good the controls feel. Very few occasions made me wish they were any different, and these moments were mostly fleeting. Team Ninja’s marriage of first and third person is marvelously successful. The only perspective I felt was largely underwhelming was the third-person over-the-shoulder camera. It was during these scenes that I most keenly felt the loss of the analogue stick.

The graphics are quite good for the Wii’s hardware, only rarely dropping the framerate. Samus looks good, and the cinematics are terrific.

The environments can also be very pretty and atmospheric

Textures occasionally look noticeably flat and fuzzy, but these are usually background elements that will go unnoticed. It’s hard to argue against the game’s appearance, especially when it runs so smooth for almost the entirety of the experience. Nintendo shows once again that they know best how to pull the juice out of their own hardware.

On a final note, there is another mission after the credits that takes Samus back to the ship to retrieve a lost item that had the most genuinely touching scene for me in the whole game. That, on top of a truly isolated experience made all the more haunting by the memories of friends lost there. I really enjoyed that little extra tid-bit.

Closing Comments:

So where does this leave me when I try and score a game? On the one hand, I feel that the presentation of the character, the dialogue, inner monologue and voice acting varied from terrible to merely sub-par. On the other hand, the plot was great, the gameplay fantastic, and the production values sky-high. Not to mention the fact that their efforts to give Samus a character and personality is a noble goal, if largely unsuccessful. So I have to judge it based on my take-away experience, and by the end of the game that take-away was actually a very good one. Despite my complaints, I had a great time with the game and how much more can you really ask for?

STAR RATING: (4 Stars out of 5)

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 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:

What You Don't Hear: Copious Melodrama

The largest single complaint laid against the game always boils down to the portrayal of Samus’ character. In that vein I’m going to focus primarily on that. The plot and events of the game are mostly self-explanatory so I’m pretty much going to leave them alone (though I’m upset that we never find out for sure the identity of the betrayer among the Galactic Federation troops).

Samus is a badass while you’re playing her. Hell, she’s kind of a badass in most of the cinematics too. But then she is shown to be almost completely subservient to some guy we’ve barely heard mention of in the series before (outside of some vagueness in Metroid: Fusion.) She goes so far as to wait for his authorization before using her equipment. Even in cases where her equipment means the difference between life and death. The oft-cited varia suit in the volcano levels being the perfect example of this. It’s discouraging to see someone who represents us, who we might even look up to in some sense, debasing herself I this way.

It's a rare moment when you don't want Samus to tell Adam to shove it.

Now let me frankly say that I think super-feminist examinations of this phenomenon declaring Samus as being completely destroyed as a character are going too far. It is not sexist to portray a woman who has some frailties and weaknesses. I don’t think that goal of feminism should ever be the goal of macho-izing the female gender. The ‘Macho’ attitude hasn’t exactly done a lot for the male gender in many respects. We don’t need female bald-space-marines to add to the overabundance of male ones. That said, I can’t argue that this isn’t bad for Samus as a character. As I said in the article, the way she is presented is damaging, even if the intentions were noble.

Her friendship with Anthony, particularly as shown in the end cinematic, goes a longer way towards humanizing her in a realistic fashion that her melodrama at the beginning of the story. The only scene where I really felt for her and her loss of Adam was when she retrieved Adam’s helmet in the portion of the game after the end credits. For whatever reason, I found that segment to be pretty touching.

Samus' ties to other chracters are important and generally a good thing.

When Samus fights Ridley in this game, she’s already fought and defeated him once in her past. But despite this, she turns into a little girl (she is literally depicted as such in the cinematic) the moment she sees him again. This is the cinematic I would expect for their first meeting, when she is just meeting the shadowy monsters of her past for the first time, not now. Should she be scared? Yeah, sure. But there are more subtle ways of showing that, which are more true to where her character should be at this point in her life.

The strange thumbs-up/thumbs-down element of the story comes across as weird to western gamers, myself included.


But my exposure to anime has given me enough of a window to Japanese culture to know that this is a cultural discrepancy. A slight, but jarring inconsistency that makes the western audience scratch their heads at the weird meaning given to the gesture during the story sequences.
Again, despite my major qualms, I really enjoyed myself, which surprises me quite a lot. I wasn’t sure where I was going to land after the first few hours, and I’m glad I landed thumbs up.

– Edward L. Cheever II~

“Mass Effect 2” Review

My Shepherd Saved Everybody. Will yours?

Aug 27, 2010 – The first Mass Effect was a terrific RPG that was weak in certain areas, such as tech and a hint of overly ambitious design and unintuitive menus. Mass Effect 2 does many things better than its predecessor, ultimately becoming an even better experience overall than the first game and one of the best games of this generation, even if it too has a few issues.

The biggest strength of any RPG is the story, and the Mass Effect series has one of the best examples of space opera in any medium, standing alongside Star Trek and Star Wars, who were its clear inspirations. When compared to other video games, Mass Effect’s story stands head and shoulders above most of the competition, drawing strength especially from its ability to import information from a Mass Effect 1 save file. Nothing is more impressive than realizing how your game, your Commander Shepherd, is unique to you.

FYI, My Shepherd is Female and Looks Nothing Like This Guy

Decisions you made in the first game change how things happen in the second, from big decisions about the fate of the council, to little things like how you treated a foolish fanboy on the Citadel. This lends a strong connective bond between the player and the events of the game. I know I’ve already begun shaping my experience in the inevitable Mass Effect 3, and that is a gratifying and thrilling experience unmatched in almost any other game or medium.

The story opens with a bang, and the cinematic sensibilities are on full display. It’s tough to describe the plot without spoiling those crucial opening minutes, and trust me, you don’t want them spoiled, so I’m going to skim past it and get to the general gist of the plot. It’s been more than two years after Saren and Sovereign tried and failed to bring the Reapers, and thus Armageddon, back into the galaxy. Human colonies in the terminus systems are disappearing due to an enigmatic race colloquially called the Collectors, and it would appear that the Reapers are also involved somehow. With your original team scattered, you’ve got to put together a new team of specialists and highly skilled individuals to face the threat.

Collectors Are A Nasty Bunch

Ultimately this culminates in what would be considered a suicide mission: an assault into the heart of the Collector’s territory. The story is suitably epic, but a part of me prefers the scope and jump-up-and-cheer ending of Mass Effect 1 to the (still pretty cool) boss fight present here. Like any good Part 2 of a trilogy, the game has a darker, more desperate feel overall, and perfectly sets up the action of the third and final game.

The plot is fascinating, but it is allocated almost entirely to the front and back ends of the game with only two major Collectors missions in between. Filling the gaps are numerous missions to recruit characters, loyalty missions, and side quests. You will feel like you’re taking enormous detours from the story of the Collectors, but this isn’t a completely terrible thing as the character based missions steal the show, with fascinating and even occasionally emotionally-involving portraits of these individuals. Side quests, on the other hand, are as small and largely forgettable as they were in the first game. All told, the material is largely better than the first, but is more unevenly paced. Still it is a very minor gripe.

The Characters are the best part of the story.

Gameplay is very different from the first game, largely to positive effect. The act of moving, shooting, using powers and commanding your squad are smooth and feel good, which is something that couldn’t truly be said about Mass Effect 1. This is a conclusion I took a while to come to, though, as I had acclimated myself to the first game’s mechanics pretty thoroughly. Major differences like needing thermal clips (ammo, in any other game) were more of a hassle than an improvement. I know that overheating guns was an annoyance in the first game, but having to scrounge for ammo for my Sniper Rifle and Hand Cannon is just annoying. Biotic and tech abilities are more varied and useful this time around, though strategy isn’t swept under the rug as biotic barriers and shields do a better job at blocking such attacks and need to be taken out first.

The Varying Abilities Make Every Character A Great Addition

The real mixed blessing of Mass Effect 2 is the inventory system, which is to say that there isn’t one. I no longer feel like I have to shuffle and compare every gun to find the best weapon for my tastes, which cuts down on headaches, but there’s a part of me that misses finding that one gun that was right for me. Like many reviewers before me, I wondered several times if there wasn’t, perhaps, some nice middle ground they could have come to. Perhaps a nicely designed comparison system? At any rate, it is better than the first, due to less frustration and time wasted in complicated menus, but it is a marginal improvement at best.

Scanning planets is kinda boring, but easy and useful.

Technical difficulties are lessened but still present. People rarely get stuck in doors, but I’ve seen characters walking in the air a foot above the ground on occasion. Transitions from one cut scene to another are jumpy, especially during the final moments of the game, and every time it happens I feel a hiccup in the immersion experience.

The Worlds Are A Lot Prettier This Time Around

Art direction is vastly improved, however. No longer do the buildings feel culled from the mind of a singular architect. There are at least three or four of them now (lol.) Seriously though, the galaxy felt more alive, and more creative, than it did in the first game. Illium and Omega were two worlds in particular (well, one world and an Asteroid, technically) that stood out as well designed and varied.
Bland worlds that are nothing but random colored mountains are gone in favor of everything from lush plant life to rainy swamps to, yes, barren rocky worlds. In exchange we lose the Mako, which was fun to drive around and climb mountains with, but ultimately it is a change for the best.

YMIR Mechs Are Always Intimidating

Closing Comments:

Great stories in games are hard to come by, but Bioware has proven reliable in this area by again providing one of the most intricate, detailed and involving stories around, with deep and interesting characters, excellent villains and atmospheric environments. If you loved the first game, and especially its story, you’ll love the second game. If you had issues with the first game, the second changes up the experience in a variety of ways that may appeal to you. If you hate the first game… what are you doing here anyway?
If you love a wonderful science fiction story no matter the technical difficulties, bump this up to a full five stars. Mass Effect 3 better get here quickly.

STAR RATING: (4 1/2 Stars)

Four and one-half Stars

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a segment called Spoiler Talk. This is a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story that is too spoilerish 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:

How About That Illusive Man, Eh?

What a ride those opening minutes were! Even knowing ahead of time that I was going to lose the Normandy (it’s hard for me to avoid spoilers with as many podcasts I listen to and as many articles as I read) it was a wild experience. I watched my girlfriend play some of the opening missions before I got a chance to play the game myself, and I was worried that the combat wasn’t going to feel good, and that my love of the first game was going to come between me and fully enjoying the second. I was swiftly proven wrong, and the first half hour had me hooked. It still took a bit to get used to the modified flow of combat but the changes were largely worth it.
What really made the game shine for me were the characters and their interactions. Mordin was my favorite character, with his interesting observations and eccentric personality. Nothing was as funny as the final conversation with him before going through the Omega 4 relay. Grunt was a worthy successor to Wrex’s position as the muscle of the group, and watching him find his way in the world after having been bred and grown in a tank was interesting. Tali and Garrus were both nice to see return, as I missed all those old familiar faces. Miranda seems to be a divisive figure (Katie really didn’t like her, but I did -not because of her appearance-) but I felt like her loyalty mission saving her sister from her father was particularly touching one.

Two of the characters were not exactly my favorites: Jacob and Jack. Jacob felt bland, and I often felt that his mouth animated wrong. Jack is interesting, but unlikable. She’s simply not the kind of person I’d like to hang out with much (read: ever.)
The reveal of the Human Reaper at the end of the game was suitably creepy, and the boss fight was neat, but I didn’t get the same chills-of-awesome that I did when the Alliance Fleet arrived in the first game. Perhaps this is purposeful and necessary, given that the game is the second in the trilogy. In that sense, it makes a good “Empire Strikes Back” impression, especially with the reveal of the multitude of Reapers closing in on the Milky Way.
The reveal that the Collectors were the Protheans was a surprise and very cool, and they made great villains throughout the story. I just wish they were more present, as sometimes I felt like the Collector threat was very much on the back burner.

All in all, I loved the story and gameplay, I just feel like there could have been tweaks to send it over the edge. Truth be told, if it weren’t for the fact that the cut scenes at the end jump around so much, this would have been a five star game easy, despite the other flaws. Those stutters really hurt the final emotional build up and intensity. I don’t want to be reminded mid way through the approach to the Collector’s main base that I’m playing a video game. I want to be mentally inside the world, not mentally behind a controller.

“God of War III” Review

Kratos’ Long Awaited Console Finale is a Tragedy of the Right Kind.

Aug 9, 2010 – Kratos’ journey of revenge, which began back in 2005 on the Playstation 2, final comes to a bloody end on the Playstation 3. The complete story arc has taken five years to come to its conclusion, and the distance between the second and third entries are telling. God of War III is a technical marvel, with fantastic graphics, polished combat and impressive scale, showing every possible advantage that time has given the team at Sony Santa Monica. But the game also shows the weaknesses of that time difference in its story. God of War III, while full of epic set-pieces, has a story that largely feels like God of War II.V (ha, a roman numeral joke!) while simultaneously separating the player from the main character, making Kratos a largely unlikable, unsympathetic protagonist.

God of War II left off at a cliffhanger (literally,) forcing God of War III to pick up immediately afterward as the Titans ascend the face of Mount Olympus with Kratos riding shotgun on top of Gaia. While this sort of beginning jump-starts the action and introduces the player to God of War’s massive fantasy world, it also ensures that God of War III will have to struggle to find its own identity, as it rides entirely on the wave of God of War II. The second game left the players wanting more, but the wait has been long and the connection required to care about the story has dissipated. Any player wondering if they should play God of War II again right before starting the third game, wonder no more. It is a must if you want to get anything else out of it.
The game manages to find its identity, not through interesting storytelling, but through its sense of scale, which dwarfs the previous games’ already considerable weight in this area. Kratos feels like an ant crawling across the arms of giants, and it is awe inspiring. However it is also shallow, and after the impressive visuals wear off, there is little real story telling to back it up and make it memorable.

Yes, the little thing between the fingers is Kratos.

Part of what made Kratos an interesting protagonist in the first two games was how the player felt sorry for the guy, what with being betrayed at every step and all he’s lost. God of War III’s storytelling lets the player forget that element of the character until near the very end. By that time, you’ve been carving up the gods for blood sport and the connection between player and Kratos is all but lost, as you witness him do horrible things in the name of his revenge. Even as the world crumbles around him, he never stops to think about the consequences of what he is doing. If his family’s spirits are (presumably, based on Chains of Olympus for the PSP,) in Elysium, then what happens to them when he causes the Underworld to collapse so thoroughly? These are the kinds of things he never thinks about.
That’s not to say there aren’t interesting story elements going on. The parallels between Hephaestus and Kratos are interesting and tragic. Kratos’ protectiveness of Pandora is understandable, though it feels out of character. The end sequence especially focuses on storytelling, and while it does so admirably (it is my favorite sequence in the whole game) it feels out of place in the jagged and broken character arc of Kratos.

The story of Kratos (theoretically) has come to its end (you know, aside from prequels and stuff.) Like a classic Greek tale, this is a story about tragedy, more bitter than sweet. The final stretch of the game is a marvelous bit of storytelling, full of symbolism and mystical imagery fitting of the Grecian roots of the game’s narrative. At least, up until the very end, when there is a twist of thematic messages that doesn’t sit right with my sense of what was happening. While it ties together certain elements of the overall story, the ending revelations are clichéd and almost moralizing which clashes spectacularly with the rest of the narrative.

But it has giant horse-water-crabs!

But aside from the story let-down, the game is masterful at what it does, which is to say unbridled violent action. Nothing is quite as cathartic as carving through a horde of skeleton warriors; a truth which has only proven more so since the first God of War did it so well half a decade ago. The combat is incredibly smooth, much more so than its predecessors, and there was never a moment when I felt like I didn’t have options in battle. The distance grab is an absolute game changer, and charging while using an opponent as a battering ram gives Kratos more mobility on the field of battle than he ever had before. Being able to cancel out of almost any attack to block or dodge is a great help, but just as important is the new item bar below the health and magic bars. The fact that objects like Apollo’s bow, Helios’ head, and Hermes’s Boots don’t rely on the magic meter, and quickly recharge, is a god send. I found myself using many more items and weapons in this God of War game than all the others.

I Need Your Head Please. Thank You.

Speaking of weapons, this is the first collection of optional weaponry (outside of the Gauntlet of Zeus on the PSP) to feel useful. I would find myself switching weapons depending on which enemies I was fighting because some were better suited to the task than others. The Nemesis Whip proves effective against the annoying Satyrs, the Namean Cestus (while not as good as the Gauntlet) prove to be devastating against large forces and some of the otherwise stronger foes. Still, Kratos’ classic blades (called the Blades of Exile this time around) are the best for most situations and you will find yourself returning to them when you want to make sure things get done right.

I Need Your Death Blades Now, Please. Thank You.

Magic seems to take a bit of a back seat this time around, but that may simply be because the various abilities aren’t much use outside of the Army of Sparta. Not to mention having to switch weapons to use whichever spell you want feels clumsy. The Quick Time Events, on the other hand, are handled much better by assigning each button press to the side of the screen that matches its placement on the game pad. Square to the left, X on the bottom, O on the right and Triangle at the top. This allows the player to watch what’s going on on screen more easily, and be much more likely to succeed, but I do wish they had made the images of the buttons larger.
The light puzzles that have always been a part of God of War are mostly well done here, with the one real standout being Hera’s Garden which is M.C. Escher-like in the way it warps reality. There is a music rhythm game, however, (no I’m not kidding) that feels out of place. Not so much because it’s a music rhythm game (though it isn’t everything it could be either,) but because it incorporates the Playstation face buttons into the world itself. The end result is very fourth-wall breaking and a detraction overall from the experience. While the puzzles are generally still not as good as previous games, they don’t truly disappoint either.

You'll get to know Gaia VERY well.

There’s not much to say about the graphics outside of the fact that they are gorgeous. Kratos is one of the most detailed character models I’ve seen in a game, and the enemies are also well made and gruesome. Little things, like the guts spilling out of a centaur’s belly and the dangly bits from the head of Helios, sell the game world as realistic as can be at this point in console graphics. The score is as epic and mood setting as it has ever been in the series and the menu theme still echoes in my mind whenever I think about the game.

And the Imagery is super cool.

Closing Comments:

God of War III is a fantastic game in many respects. There simply aren’t many action games that come anywhere near this caliber of combat, graphical prowess and design. If all you are looking for is an excellent action game with lots of production values, then there is no question you should buy this game, and you should bump my score below up by half a star. If, however, you were looking for a satisfying story to conclude Kratos’ tale of revenge, this game only partially delivers, distancing the player from Kratos until the end, and what comes is, while excellent, too little too late. I recommend you seat this game in your Parthenon, but keep your expectations in check. God of War III still sits on the throne of action games, no question. But when compared to the satisfying narratives of other games it is a lesser god.

STAR RATING: (4 Stars)

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a new segment for you that I’m debuting here called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment that will appear periodically after certain reviews (of any type, be it film, game or book) in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story that is too spoilerish 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:

When it comes to God of War you know you’re going to be doing a lot of killing. It kinda comes with the territory. And we know that Kratos is kind of a dick. We knew that ever since he sacrificed that guy in a cage to the flames back in God of War I. But the level of blood letting in GoW III is crazy. There isn’t a person you meet whom you don’t kill at some point in the game. Well, except Athena because, oops, you already killed her last time. Kratos even kills the person he suddenly decides he doesn’t want to kill, Pandora. Yeah, she reminds him of Calliope, but I don’t think that would stop him for too long, especially with her insistence on giving her life up and Zeus being a clear and present danger to both of them.
It’s this element of the story that really bugs me about the revelation at the end of the game, that Kratos is the vessel for “Hope.” He’s a vessel for slaughter, revenge, mercilessness and hatred. The idea that Hope is the power that he’s been running on for so long is silly in context. Hope for what? Hope that he would kill Zeus? I guess. But that’s a poor connection. He sure doesn’t exhibit hope of bringing his family back from the grave, or makin the world a better place or anything else.

Hope Will Rip Out Your Eyeballs!

The whole idea of Hope being a weapon sealed away with evil in Pandora’s Box strikes me as ridiculous and clichéd. It’s nearly M. Night Shyamalan in its moralizing wackiness. And then the fact that Kratos’ death gives that “Hope” to all humanity to use as they will is just as clichéd. It’s another story explaining the death of mysticism and fantasy and the rise of science, reason and Western Civilization. Blah. It’s been told better elsewhere. It’s not that God of War couldn’t have done it, but they would have had to portray Kratos differently throughout the story. They simply didn’t support their conclusion with any kind of character build up or arc.

If the whole “Hope” silliness had been removed, it would have been a great Grecian tragedy. The scenes leading up to the end are all fantastic, with the scenes where Kratos is running in near darkness with only his lantern to guide him are extremely well done and artistically striking. I don’t think I’ve yet played a game that explores the character’s mind in such an iconic fashion, using color, sound and general art design to wonderful use. If the game had featured more sections like this, especially near the beginning of the game (right after falling back into Hades would have been an excellent spot,) I would likely have remained somewhat sympathetic and connected to Kratos, even as he ruins the world around him.
The other revelation at the end I wasn’t too keen on was Athena’s switcheroo to manipulative bitch. A part of me suspected it, and hoped it wasn’t Athena but something posing as her, but in the end my suspicions were proven true. This invalidates a lot of the past few games and takes away one of the last sympathetic characters of the God of War world.

My last qualm with the game’s story was the sequence after the credits where it is strongly hinted at that Kratos is still alive. Not only is this wildly inconsistent with his massive chest hole and mortality, but also with the tragic themes. He should stay dead to lend weight to the events of the games. Maybe if it was later reveal that his dead body was dragged away by something or someone else… well, that might prove interesting.
Ultimately I was left unsatisfied by the storytelling, but that is not to say there weren’t some things about it I liked. It just isn’t as good as God of War I and II. A better game? Yeah. A better story? No. Of the three, this one has the weakest story.

– Edward L. Cheever II