Tuesday, March 23, 2010

God of War III - Review

Score: 9.5/10

Developer: Santa Monica Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: March 16, 2010

Pros: Incredible overall scale, variety of weapons, Starts off with an epic opening, overall flow keeps you guessing as to what is ahead, one pretty looking game with amazing environments, brutal finishes for bosses and enemies alike

Cons: One particular puzzle puts the brakes on any immersion, certain segments warrant trial and error, grab that guy!...no the other guy with the O on his head

  God of War ranks pretty high among the PS2 titles worthy of anyone's time. With fast-paced combat and brutal action sequences, Kratos was able to set himself apart from the typical hack and slash genre. Ask anyone who has played the series and they will be able to name their favorite kills or boss fights with little hesitation. With its first appearance on the PS3, God of War III continues the trend set forth by previous installments. Kratos returns to conclude the trilogy and offers the same classic gameplay with an experience that one-ups the previous installments.


  The game picks up right where the second installment ended. Kratos is riding on the back of the Titans, with vengeance on his mind after Zeus's betrayal in GoWII.  That is the Cliffnotes version of the matter. Along the way there are plenty of other story elements to delve into, but the matter remains the same; Zeus betrayed you, go kill him and anything that stands in your way. Needless to say the story is nice but with the character of Kratos already known so well, there is just so much one could do with him. They do nicely with what they have though, and the plot becomes much more interesting at the latter half of the game.

  What makes God of War far from any other typical hack and slash is the overall presentation of the game, the key factor here being the immense scale on which the game is based around. You are simply some guy that is going up against gods and titans. At times you will appear as a mere speck on the screen as the camera pans back to reveal you are riding on a Titan, or you start whaling on a boss four times your size. Combined with gigantic environments that takes a whole "level" to get to the top, and you get this sense of being a small guy in over his head. Not only that but the way the fixed camera positions itself provides a truly interesting take on the typical over the should perspective. Twisting and turning to match the terrain, panning off to watch a fight in the distance, or even going into perspective of Kratos's next victim the camera just adds to the cinematic presentation the game offers. These elements are what makes the game truly epic and helps it stand out among the many others.

  Even with the gigantic creatures and characters you encounter, the game maintains a look that is hard to duplicate. Character models are incredibly detailed, showcasing polished and shiny metallic armor to a scaly and slimy Medusa. Kratos has been updated as well with a grittier look, readable angry expressions, and becoming practically soaked with blood after each brutal finisher. Besides the models themselves, the worlds you explore are truly a sight to stop and behold. Environments range from dark, gruesome depths of the Underworld to the snowy hilltops of Mount Olympus. Each world is a sight worthy of a camera pan.

 The voicework from the previous installments remains just as good as it was. Terrence Carson delivers another incredible performance as Kratos, still maintaining that fearsome and intimidating persona. But he remains just a small portion of the cast they were able to procure. Rip Torn comes in as Hephaestus, Malcolm Mcdowell lends his voice, and even one huge surprise comes in to reprise a role he has played on television for a long time. The soundtrack accompanies the stellar cast with a full on orchestra capturing every moment. Nothing beats impaling a minotaur with the classic theme in the background. The soundtrack gets you pumped for overwhelming odds or strikes a cautious approach as you delve deeper into dark caverns.


  The classic God of War gameplay returns with a few tweaks to keep the combat fast-paced. As before, you rack up combos and toss minions into walls, earning experience along the way. This becomes much more difficult as numerous enemies come at you at once, and difficulty definitely increases as the game progresses throwing enemies such as cerberus and stone golems at you all at once. Combat becomes incredibly fast paced at this point, really making you retreat to devise the best method of disposing of them. Luckily you will be equipped with a vast array of weaponry in addition to the classic blades, which you can switch on the fly with a quick button combination. Though they are slowly gained, once you acquire an arsenal you'll find yourself switching between them to match the situation. Couple this with a slew of new magic to devastate the battlefield and you become one deadly god-killer. After damaging an enemy enough the classic "O" button appears over the head indicating the ability to perform a brutal finisher. Instead of being placed right on the screen, they are off to the borders corresponding to placement on the controller (Triangle appears at the top, Square to the left, etc). This allows the actual player to enjoy the satisfying finishers themselves, concentrating on the next button in their peripheral. The finishers this time around are just as awesome as the previous installments, providing incentive to finish baddies off in style.

  Upon killing enemies you gain experience orbs that you can use to upgrade or "power up" your weapons. Leveling weapons unlocks additional moves as well as increasing damage dealt. This classic system works well enough, but after gaining enough orbs to completely power up some of the final weapons to their maximum potential you are left with a short time to enjoy it. While finding hidden chests does help you progress a bit faster, the typical person will simply upgrade their initial arsenal with little incentive to deck out the fun new ones.

  The newest addition to the game is an item bar. This bar constantly recharges unlike your magic and health bar. This is used for unleashing a volley of arrows, using a certain someone's head to blind the masses, and even charging into battle at high speed. While many find themselves conserving their magic bar for the dire situations, this additional bar allows you to mix up the typical combat with a few added tactics to experiment with as they are equally enjoyable to use.

  To put a break in the hack and slash combat, there are a slew of other events to mix things up. Puzzles become the typical event you run into the most. Though these start out simple enough, they become much more complicated as you progress. Even with the added complications, I only found myself truly stuck on one end-game puzzle for a small time. Coupled with puzzles, there is also the occasional Star Fox minigame!....kind of...Basically you guide Kratos through a Death Star trench dodging debris along the way. While this can be fun on the easier difficulties, it becomes very trial and error when a few wrong turns into a wall kills you. It does not help that when I run into one beam, I cannot regain the ability to see so I end up hitting about four more in a domino effect. Platforming becomes another central element as you swing with the chains or use a harpy for a taxi ride to the far away platform. These become incredibly fast at the latter portion of the game and you occasional get mixed up on where you are suppose to jump, but stay relatively manageable. With all of these added elements mixed into the combat, the game never falls into a steady rhythm of predictable design. You never round a corner thinking here comes a boss fight or here comes a puzzle, the game keeps you guessing and ensures there is never too much of one thing.

  While the game is an epic piece of work, there are a few things that hold it back from perfection. One puzzle in particular throws a halt on the immersion the game offers. Clearly represented are the triangle, x, square, and circle button in their Olympian representations. It gets better...these are used to play Kratos Hero: Olympian Tour. The puzzle is simple enough and goes by quickly, but compared to the other puzzles and elements the game offers it really throws the breaks on the typical feeling of the game. Another trouble I come across far too often is the detection in the game, mainly pertaining to when I try to grab an enemy. When that awesome circle appears over the head, at least half the time I will grab a baddie in my way and end up staggering back. While acceptable at lower difficulties, on tougher battles where health is crucial it is beyond difficult to precisely get the intended target through the horde of baddies, and can be a problem even if a couple are near your intended victim.

  God of War III captures the best qualities of the previous installments while still tweaking them to create an experience that is unmatched by any other game. Being the last in the trilogy, I can safely say it provides a satisfying conclusion to one of the most epic gaming trilogies in Sony's arsenal. It is one of the few games that you can complete and immediately desire to go back through a second time. You will find yourself going back again and again to relive certain moments and even conquer the additional challenge rooms. Though the occasional and rare flaws can pop up, they are so fleeting compared to the rest of the game that one can see this for what it is; a prime candidate for Game of the Year and all around brutally fun experience.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII Review

Score: 8.75/10

Final Fantasy XIII
PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: March 9, 2010

Pros: Stunning Visuals, Interesting and unique story, Paradigm Shift keeps gameplay fast-paced and adds a great depth of strategy, Environments are incredibly detailed and breathtaking, Summoning never gets old

Cons: First hour of actual gameplay is drawn out, VERY Linear worlds in first half of the game only opening up after about 18 hours, No option to kick Vanille whenever she squeaks above a high C-note

  Final Fantasy is one of those few series that has managed to stand the test of time with games that were never dependent upon each other. Each game possessed the same elements, but always managed to throw in a great story, interesting cast of characters, and satisfying JRPG gameplay. Final Fantasy XIII continues that trend, offering not only a compelling story, but some fast-paced gameplay and a truly grand presentation that is unmatched by previous installments. Though the typical fan base may find the new approach a bit too closed off...


  If I could explain the entirety of the story in this game, it would take five more pages. The basic idea is that there is a huge Utopian city in the sky named Cocoon, ruled by The Sanctum. Civilization is blessed by the "fal'Cie", or god-like creature that protect and sustain the population. However they also discovered hostile fal'Cie from the outside world known as Grand Pulse. Fal'cie have the ability to choose a servant by branding them l'cie, slaves to the fal'cie's will. Successful completion of their task turns them into an immortal crystal....unsuccessful completion turns them into an abomination...win, win right? Any contact with a Pulse le'Cie warrants a "Purge" or nice way of saying genocide to ensure the world remains in order.

  That's where the game picks up, where the latest Pulse fal'Cie has tainted a district that is being purged. Our heroes are all involved in some way, whether they are leaders of a resistance against the purge or simply victims that got on the right train with our female lead, Lightning. They all eventually head to the same place and embark together under dire circumstances. The plot is ten times more complicated that what I just summarized, offering truly deep and interesting characters that we learn are more connected than one would have previously thought. There are plenty of twists, turns, and truly emotional moments in the game that make for another solid story that drives the player forward. Though initially, you will be confused as to what is going on around you. It takes time to get used to the new vocabulary of l'cie and fal'cie, but luckily the "journal" element of the game is plenty length, summarizing key events for those thoroughly confused.

  The first thing you notice as soon as the game fires up is the incredible level of detail the developers took in creating the worlds and characters. This game is seriously up there as far as being one of the best looking games of the past decade. Character models look just as good in pre rendered scenes as they do in actual gameplay. You are able to notice distinct feathers on Chocobos, shiny and sparkly textures of a city, and even great detail on facial hair and of course...Sazh's fro.There were a multitude of moments where I stood in awe of the worlds in the game, panning the camera a full 360 around me just to take it all in. Summoning your trusty eidolon never gets old to watch as the pretty lights and colors will captivate you. This detailed look to the game makes traversing worlds and battles a sight that rarely gets old.

  The cast of characters at your disposal are all unique in their own right. Even though some elements seemed borrowed from past games (Pole-arm girl = Freya from FF9?), the character's voice work is what truly brings them to life. The developers took time in the US port to fix lip syncing not only in gameplay, but pre-rendered cutscenes as well to match English dialogue. This further enhances the experience as the relationships and interactions between characters are high points of the game. Voice acting is top notch, boasting some of the best I have heard in the series. Vanille is the only real complaint for the game, not in her dramatic scenes so much as just in game squeals. She has an incredibly bubbly personality and mainly sticks with a high pitched voice. Think Navi from Legend of Zelda...but more Australian. That being said, she still is just as interesting in her background and involvement as the rest of the cast.

  The soundtrack for this game is pretty decent, though I do not feel it holds up with previous installments like that of Final Fantasy X. This is mainly due to the decision to add lyrics to most of the songs. I do not know if you listen to much pop music....but this is what I ended up listening to as I roam the halls filled with monsters. They even put lyrics to the chocobo theme, a theme that really needed no words at all. That is like adding lyrics to the Jaws theme, it just kills the mood. Still the battle theme and boss battle themes remain the high point of the soundtrack.

The Gameplay

  The battle system for the game has been overhauled. You only control one character. While that may seem like it could be easy to do, the system adds complication pretty quickly. You gain more Active Time Bars, around 4 or 5, as you progress. You can manually stack the attacks you want, wait until they all fill and unleash them on an enemy or simply cut it off early to throw a few quick hits in. There is a handy "Auto-Attack" button that weighs enemy weaknesses and uses whatever moves are most efficient. It is much like the Staples Easy Button....except more deadly and with less office supplies. You actually find yourself using this button quite a lot, with a few exceptions in fighting groups more tactically, it will be the go-to attack method.

  About 2 hours into the game you unlock the most interesting aspect of the game: Paradigm Shift. This is a way to control the party members by assigning them roles. You are given a preset of these to use for the first half of the game, but can customize them much later on. Basically a character chooses a role like a Commander that is focused on attack, Ravager that focuses on magic, or Medic for healing. If I want a balanced attack method, I will shift so each person has a different role. If the enemy is guarding attacks, I can unleash all I can by assigning a Ravager, Commander, Ravager role to shift to that will hit them hard. While this starts out pretty basic, in the latter half of the game you are constantly switching paradigms to fit the situation. This keeps you on your toes, and makes the battles incredibly fun to engage in. Boss battles in particular require quick thinking and continual shifting to adjust for devastating attacks and buffing your party for the fight.

  Combat has a few other elements to vary the fighting further. There is a "combo" meter for each enemy, where if I continually lay damage into them I can "stagger" the enemy. Once staggered, every hit on the enemy deals critical damage and I can even launch them into the air for some added effect. You will also slowly unlock Eidolons. Summoning these dismisses the other party members but allows you to build up a gauge to unleash devastating attacks with an always satisfying finisher.

  Fights get you items and crystarium points which you use to level up much like in Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. You level up the roles of your party adding new moves, additional accessory slots, and upgrading general stats along the way. The weapons and accessories you gain can be upgraded with components from fights. This becomes tedious as you find new weapons and accessories every five minutes and upgrading these can be costly as they stack up. You also gain gil at certain areas, but the first half of the game leaves you so broke that you can not even afford anything you want and the things you can afford are items you already possess. You will usually only be able to buy potions or a few additional components to start. That is like giving me five bucks and telling to me to pick something out from an electronics store. So many cool things, but I will walk out with gum.

  Besides combat you will be wandering the world, which is where the game may throw some fans off. The first half of this game is very..very..very linear. It sets you on a path and you go forward for a lot of it. Though the occasional branch off can be found for an item in a corner, you will always go one direction. There are no towns to trade at, no added minigame for a break in combat, no inns to rest at...just moving and fighting. While they try to mix it up by letting you gain the upperhand and sneak up on enemies, this linear feel lingered on far too long. You do not get to start "leveling up" until about 2 hours into the game. You do not get to customize weapons until about 3 hours into the game.You do not get to select your party until about a good 15 hours into the game. You do not even get the ability to use most of the fun gameplay elements until the latter half of the game. I understand the need to hold my hand to start, but I am pretty sure I already know not to attack if my health is flashing red after 2 hours. It almost has an element of repetition were it not for fight approaches; Walk down path, fight monsters, fight boss, switch parties, repeat.

  This is where the game becomes a test of the long-time Final Fantasy fan. In practically all the previous games it was side missions, mini-games, and towns to explore that put a nice break in the typical path. Without that break, the game mainly appeals to the combat enthusiast and story-driven gamer. The game seemed to shift the series from a huge exploration feel to a small trail of predestined experiences. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but this new approach may leave many scratching their head as to the fate of their beloved towns. Halfway through the game you do eventually make it to the plains and are free to engage in side missions. The new approach is not really a bad thing. You never really get lost or turned around on where to head. In a sense, the first 15 hours of the game feel like one very long tutorial, slowly easing you into the workings of combat and leveling while pushing through the story....very...very slowly. A huge positive is that you regenerate health completely after each fight and if you die, you can be put outside the path and try again without reloading my save. This allows you to experiment with different techniques and tactics to find the most efficient method of combat.


  Though the first half of the game can be a bit tedious to some, the latter portion and overall presentation of this game are the high points. Combat is increasingly enjoyable as you progress and offers some truly memorable boss battles. It is the look and the story of this game that is truly driving me, with epic fight sequences and surprising confrontations. If you are finding the game repetitive, I implore you to press on as the difficulty and strategy increases at much later chapters of the game. Do not let the few complaints or bothers with the new approach fool you, this is one very solid RPG title and a great addition to the series.