Archive for December, 2011

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays to all. Hopefully you’ve had just as good a time as we have.

Posts will resume after New Years. In the meantime, we give you your daily dose of merriment and epic rolled into one:


Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Victoria’s Review

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Platform: Wii
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 2011
Rating: Everyone 10+

Written by Victoria Zukas

I need to say a few things before I get started. While I have not played every Legend of Zelda game (by a long shot) I still consider myself a huge fan of the series. I got hooked when Ocarina of Time came out for the N64 and have been a fan ever since. I have the gold cartridge of Majora’s Mask, the gold colored Nintendo DS, and a host of other smaller Zelda things that Gamestop puts right next to the register to empty my wallet. When Skyward Sword came out I bought the bundle with the gold Wii Mote.

Why am I shoving my Zelda fan credentials in your face? To make you understand when I can’t say the standard line of “If you’re a long time fan of the series this game is for you.”

Zelda a Strong Female Character?
Don’t get me wrong. Skyward Sword does get some things very right. This is the first Princess Zelda I’ve seen who breaks out of the standard damsel-in-distress role. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a strong female character, Nintendo is taking a step in right direction. Princess Zelda has always been more assertive then her female counterparts (Princess Peach for example) but this version of her is someone you can identify with. Her interaction with Link also feels more real then in previous games. It carries much more emotional weight to be chasing after your childhood friend/crush instead of some random princess.

The other thing Nintendo gets right in this game is the Wii Mote controls. When Twilight Princess was announced, Skyward Sword was the game everyone was imagining. The Motion Plus makes a HUGE difference here. When you swing the Wii Mote your sword on screen makes the exact same movement. Being so used to standard controllers it blew my mind that the game could handle diagonal cuts and thrusts. While there can be minor glitches from time to time it’s easy to reset where center is, without having to leave the game to calibrate your Wii Mote. Most of the problems I had with the Wii Mote were due to having lights on in the path of the sensor; nothing that is the fault of the game.

The only part of the controls I found fault with is Z-Targeting. I’m 10 hours in and I haven’t found a setting I can change so you don’t have to hold the Z button down to keep targeting. There is only so much I can do Nintendo; asking me to hold the Z button down while dodging, blocking, and swinging is a large annoyance. My finger gets tired after awhile.

Remember Navi?
Speaking of large annoyances, I present to you the only thing in the Zelda universe more frustrating then that small blue ball of pain. Her name is Fi, and you will learn to hate her.

Fi is one of the reasons that I say hard core Zelda fans won’t like this game. She is part of a larger problem with this game, which is demographic mismatch. I understand that with the Legend of Zelda franchise being 25 years old there are gamers coming into Skyward Sword who have never played a Zelda game before. However, Nintendo seems to have completely ignored their long term players in order to compensate for the new members to the Zelda club. As veteran players know, whenever Link finds a new object he raises it about his head, the “you got something!” music plays, and a description of what it does appears on screen. Fi then pops out of your sword and explains everything that you just read again. Really? You just told me that I got the map and how it works. Now the construct thing living in my sword needs to say it not a second after I just heard it? What grade level are you assuming I’m in?

This also happens with dialogue. The leader of the Kiwis “forgot” where he saw Zelda go off to, but if you help him find his missing people he might remember. It is so painfully obvious that he’s making Link do his work. Instead of going off to find the missing Kiwis, Fi pops out and says that the Kiwi leader knows where Zelda is and you should go find the Kiwis. ….No duh.

The one that really grates on my nerves is when her icon flashes and chimes every single time you’re low on hearts. I should refill my heart container you say? Really? I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks. (/end sarcasm)

Art Style
On a topic less frustrating, Nintendo has once again proved they are masters of world building. While each area you visit feels unique, Skyloft itself is the crown jewel of this. It’s hard to make a floating island with sky people without going into the cliche, yet somehow it works. I say “somehow” because it works so well that I can’t pull it apart to analyse it. At first Skyloft looks like someone took every color of the rainbow and threw it onto the screen. Then as you sit there staring at it, you realize that it doesn’t hurt you eyes. As you look at it more it begins to look natural. I can’t explain it. Whoever was in charge of level design for this game at Nintendo needs to be given props for Skyloft.

The choice to make Skyloft a color extravaganza also helps separate it from the surface world below. Each area that Link visits on the surface has a much stricter color pallet that it’s drawing from. For example, the Forest Temple uses mainly blues and greens, while the Fire Temple uses shades yellow, orange, and brown.

Shield Degradation
My last complaint has to do with shields in Skyward Sword. Whoever at Nintendo thought that shield degradation was a good plan didn’t playtest this game afterwards. A shield should be able to take normal wear and tear without breaking. There were several times I had to stop mid dungeon and go back to Skyloft to get my shield fixed, or buy a new one entirely. In the first dungeon I completely broke three wooden shields. This is after having them fixed multiple times and using potions to fix them while still in the dungeon. Making me retrace my steps three times because your enemies need to be stunned with a shield to be killed is not good game design.

Final Result
While I can’t say Skyward Sword is a horrible game (I will continue to play it after this review is done) I can’t whole heartily recommend it either. At the end of the day if you’re new to the Zelda series, or hard core enough to ignore the things mentioned above, go give this game a look. If you’re a Zelda fan returning for the latest installment in the series, expect to be gripping your controller several times in frustration within the first hour.

Final Verdict – Play It.

Catherine – Richard’s Perspective


Platform: Xbox 360

Developer: Atlus

Publisher: Atlus

Released: 2011

Rating: Mature

Written by Richard Pavis


More than the sum of it’s parts

Catherine is a relationship horror puzzle game, and I cannot belive that those elements actually work together.  Let me make something perfectly clear, this is a japanese dating game, and a japanese puzzle game.  If either of those things do not make you jump for joy, this is not for you.  This is not a gateway drug, this is not an introduction to either genre.  Catherine may not be easy, but it is an excellent game this is a prime example of good game design, taken to it’s highest level.  This is not Skyrim, or Portal, or WoW, but it is a richly textured and finely crafted experience with multiple and very different endings.  This is not a game to ease into, but perhaps I’m not doing it justice, since I’m not a fan of any of these types of games, but this is the chocolate & peanut butter effect.

Theme, Subject, Tone and Pacing

When discussing Catherine it behooves the reviewer to separate theme and subject.  The theme is horror, and the subject is long term relationships, but this does not mean that LTR are portrayed in a negative light, or in any horrific fashion.  The theme and subject are related but not dependent.  In fact, the primary scare for Vincent, is represented by the loss of freedom and the unwelcome change from the normal.  A LTR is simply the way in which the world is changing.  Any sufficiently life changing experiences could serve to agitate Vincent in this way. He isn’t specifically afraid of relationships. He’s actualy in his own way in love with Katherine, even if he isn’t ready for marriage.

I hesitate to call the experience of Catherine cinematic, because that implies that the best this a game can be is a movie, so instead I’ll call the experience immersive.  The pacing is exquisite.  Without wishing to ruin a few of the scares, I will say that the game plays around with the idea that Vincent’s nightmares start bleeding over into the waking world.  In the small moments of safety and solitude, Vincent is instead shocked with terrifying images and sounds, which quickly disappear before they are completely understood.  Catherine is able to spool up tension, and snap it taught to punctuate a scene.  In a simple horror game, each scare is entirely divorced from each other.  Each one discreetly placed along the timeline of the game.  As you play Catherine you will quickly realize that in addition to the small scares, the game is carefully spooling up larger, more abstract psychological scares.  As Vincent starts to become self-aware in the dream, he begins to connect events in the waking world to the dream world, providing insight to the player, but leaving Vincent to forget it each time he wakes up.  However, once information starts bleeding back into the real world, Vincent starts to unravel at the seams, questioning his own sanity.  It is this slow and steady climb toward larger questions  and fewer answers that make Catherine a truly excellently paced game.

Many Puzzles, Many Solutions

In the dream the player will be presented with a tower they must climb.  On each landing the player will be able to discover new techniques in which to climb the tower.  The idea is you can use almost any technique at any point to get through the tower.    However, a boss battle almost requires you to follow one path almost exclusively, and solve it in one particular way.  There is a disconnect between the ‘Techniques’ I ‘learn’ and the dream world in which they must be implemented.  This makes it very hard to smoothly integrate these new tricks into my climbing; I end up using the same technique over and over.  Knowing only how to use a hammer, I search in vain for nails. The trouble is, if they went out of their way to force me into using those techniques along the way it would feel heavy handed and wrong.

Controls, or lack of

As a lesser annoyance, the controls in Catherine all seem to be mounted on a hair trigger.  Every action could go off at any second, and take you onto or off of a block.  Where you are positioned matters a great deal in Catherine since each one has a different perspective on control schemes.  Standing on a block and hanging on a block will have you control Vincent differently, and the controls reverse when you go behind the main tower stack. Oh, but the controls only reverse when you stop moving.  Eventually I was able to fight my way through the controls to make it through each level, but it wasn’t easy.  I’m going to assume that these controls are the norm for the genre since despite their quirks, they seem well refined.

Here, here!  It is the beating of his hideous heart!

The loading screens in Catherine are the single biggest detractor from the experience.  They are numerous, protracted, and annoying.  Laterally, they are meant to convey the passage of time as a clock ticks away the time from scene to scene.  In practice, the ticking becomes annoying very quickly, and every loading screen lasts far too long.  Moreover there is no redeeming value to them, since they contain no text or information of any kind.  The easy excuse is that they build dramatic tension.  The simple response is, well then do it without breaking the immersion.  A deliberate technique in cinema is the physically crush the film to give it an aged or frayed look.  This is deliberate action.  Loading screens are more akin to the operator changing film reels.  It is something completely outside the scope of the experience and it only serves to aggravate me while I wait for the next scene.

I understand on a conceptual level that all the data for the game has to be loaded off the disk into active memory. What I don’t understand is why it has to happen every five minutes.  Are we loading entirely separate graphics engines for each segment?  What the hell is the game loading in the background?  I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but this smacks of bad game development.  Putting all of this blame on developers isn’t quite fair though. They are pushed to use the newest and the best tools, with ever increasing amounts of graphical fidelity, and those can take some time to load.  What I will say in Catherine’s favor is that the cutscenes and the gameplay are entirely lag free.  If the price of admission to the excellent gameplay is long load times, I’ll bite, but please cut out the damn ticking.

Final Verdict – Buy It

Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Released: 2011
Rating: Mature

Written by Victoria Zukas

To say that Catherine is unique is an understatement. Catherine is a puzzle game who’s focus is on the drama of a long term relationship. The name of the game comes from one of the main characters. Vincent is under pressure for commitment from his girlfriend Katherine, when he meets another girl named Catherine. Catherine practically throws herself at him at the local bar, and the next morning Vincent wakes up with no memory of what happened and a gorgeous naked girl next to him. He then spends the rest of his nights climbing a tower of blocks as punishment for cheating on Katherine.

I came into the game with very little experience with puzzle games and I was able to get through and enjoy Catherine. Notice how I said “get through”? The gameplay in Catherine was designed for puzzle game fans and people who love a challenge. I played on Easy mode and I never made it through any given level on the first try. In fact it usually took five or six tries per level. This game’s “Easy” is what other games call “Normal”. Thankfully there are mid level check points and if you completely mess up you can restart from your last check point at anytime.

The same team that made the Persona games made Catherine, and it shows in the art style and story. I can’t think of anyone other then the Persona Team that would attempt a game like Catherine and pull it off so well. Usually I save statements like this for last, but it really needs to be said. Buy this game. No really – buy this now; new if you can afford it. In an industry where companies will make the same game over and over (I’m looking at you and your sports series EA) it’s refreshing to see someone go out on a limb and make something wacky and different. This is made even better by the fact that it’s a great game. You actually care about Vincent and what he’s going through. All of the supporting characters are characters instead of caricatures. Hard core puzzle game fans will find the challenge they want, while new players to the genre will still be able to enjoy the game. The visuals are beautiful. It’s clear that care was taken to made sure no graphical bugs got through and the aesthetic works well for the atmosphere they are trying to create. The game goes for an anime approach with it’s art style, using full out hand drawn animation for it’s major cut scenes. I really can’t praise Catherine enough.

However, no game, no matter how good, is without it’s faults. The loading times tend to be long and jar you out of the experience. Also, when you’re not pushing blocks around there isn’t much to do. The game is divided into two sections, the first being the puzzle sections and the second being time spent at the bar. The gameplay in the first half is great, while the gameplay in the second is non-existent. You basically walk around the bar, talking to people and sending text messages. I’m not joking; you save via your cell phone and you will get messages from both Catherine and Katherine via text. This creates an obvious divide between gameplay and story. It’s like the game is saying “Yay you beat that level. Now we’ll show you a cut scene and let you walk around a bit so you can get an idea what the heck is going on.” A little more weaving of gameplay and story would have been nice, especially towards the end when the game dumps a mountain of cutscene on you right before the last set of levels. I don’t want to spoil anything, but trust me when I say the last hour or so comes out of the blue.

One point I haven’t made up my mind on is Catherine’s use of a moral choice system. During the game, in both sections of gameplay, Vincent is asked questions. Depending on how the player answers is which way the meter goes, which in turn changes the ending. On the plus side, the meter isn’t good vs evil like in most moral choice systems. One side represents stability and Katherine and the other freedom and Catherine. On the negative side, the system is so transparent that after awhile that I stopped picking what I would have picked and instead starting picking based on which girl I wanted Vincent to wind up with. When you start gaming the game on your first play-through something is wrong.

Despite the faults mentioned above Catherine is a fantastic game, and one I highly recommend. If nothing else, buy it so Atlus can keep making new and interesting games. We need more wackiness like Catherine out there.

Final Verdict – Buy It

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