It’s an exceptionally busy season for video games, such that I haven’t actually had time to post anything here–it’s all gone directly to Slant Magazine, and you can see a list of all the reviews at my author page over there. That said, here are some memorable takeaways.
DRIVECLUB proves that while racing games require the need for speed, the development of said games should suffer as many delays as it takes to ensure a smooth launch. There’s arguably more content in DRIVECLUB than in DESTINY, and at least as much story, but not being able to actually form clubs, issue challenges, or showoff in multiplayer is pretty much a dealbreaker. As I said on Slant: even the most tricked-out junker is still, at heart, a lemon–especially if it can’t perform.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: CRIMES & PUNISHMENTS isn’t the best adventure game I’ve played, and you can find arguably better puzzles in a PROFESSOR LAYTON title. But it is the most authentic recreation of what it’s like to be the world’s greatest detective–there are red herrings to throw off your deductions, crime-scene recreations that make use of Sherlock’s eidetic imagination, and some very clever twists. Here’s hoping their next installment continues to build on their engine, perhaps borrowing some of the motion-capture technology and interrogative techniques from, say, LA NOIRE, to further tax Holmes’s abilities and better avoid what can only be described as deduction on rails.
MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR steals big and steals often, appropriating the parkour-like exploration and Eagle Vision of ASSASSIN’S CREED and the combat of BATMAN: ARKHAM, and even invents its own new mechanic, the Nemesis system, in which foes are more than faceless, and will rise up time and again to haunt and taunt you. This being the first stab at a new IP, I can forgive the flaws–the largely unmemorable landscape of Mordor’s northern Udun and southern Nurn–and the repetitive missions. That said, I’m a little frightened for a sequel, as there’s a sense of closure to this title. I stand ready to be proven wrong.
PERSONA 4 ARENA ULTIMAX is a 2D fighter for people like me who aren’t good at 2D fighters, but at least it wisely separates its story mode from its battle mode, so that it doesn’t risk offending the actual combo-masters and aerial jugglers who really don’t want to spend ten hours advancing text boxes so as to get closure to the stories of PERSONA 3, PERSONA 4, and PERSONA 4 ARENA. Atlus has been killing it with their aesthetic designs and their experience as a publisher is showing, since they’re consistently able to cross genres that once seemed irredeemably at odds.
Speaking of crossing genres, THEATRHYTHM FINAL FANTASY: CURTAIN CALL may not have invented the tapping and dragging rhythm genre, but it’s perfecting it. There’s really no attempts at a story here, something that bogged down DISSIDIA ’12–and I admire Square-Enix all the more for basically setting out to curate an entertaining collection of musical history, all in one endlessly entertaining and chibi-cute package. There was a time when we could just lounge on our pile rugs and idly listen to music, doing nothing, but our attention spans have changed in an era of mobile devices and always-on technology, so this engaged musical delivery system is welcome to any and all fans.
And finally, THE WALKING DEAD: SEASON TWO demonstrates that there is a saturation point to all good things, which is probably why we can’t have them in the first place. All the shock, surprise, and tragedy of the original TellTale title has been muted by other, too-similar in-house projects: the episodic approach to spinning pop-cultural hits into video game worlds now comes across as lazy and ill-considered. THE LAST OF US certainly didn’t do SEASON TWO any favors, nor did the actual television show (or comic, for those still reading these days), which has largely dragged on without really changing the stakes or revealing any new moral dilemmas since it began. You can arguably come for the characters, as you do when revisiting your favorite television show, but the nothing-ever-changes approach of long-running comics (like Batman) does have a wearying effect, and I rarely stopped to smell the roses of regret this time around.
I’ve got more reviews up, for lovely puzzlers like MIND: PATH TO THALAMUS and HOHOKUM, which take the need (or lack thereof) for narratives to opposite ends, as well as for CLOUD CHAMBER, a weirdly compelling crowd-sourced physics thriller which, if nothing else, is the first of its kind. You might also try your hand at SO MANY ME, a fiendishly difficult puzzler that’s wearing a too-cute shell as you and your clones transform into the LEMMINGS-like stepping stones that will get you to each exit. At least it controls much more elegantly than, say, QUANTUM CONUNDRUM or DOORWAYS.
And then I’ve got some disappointing notices for COUNTERSPY, which doesn’t have nearly enough procedural content to keep me replaying (whereas THE BINDING OF ISAAC, which is about to be re-released, still has me hooked), and BACK TO BED, which dresses up a familiar puzzle solving mechanic in new Dali-flavored pajamas and then promptly forgets to do much with it. (THE BRIDGE had a similar issue: too many games attempting to be the new BRAID, and so I’ll just wait for THE WITNESS, thanks very much.) The most disappointing of the lot is Neil Gaiman’s attempt to break into video games–WAYWARD MANOR has only the faintest phantasmal feel of control, and a story that’s just as faintly tethered to this world. Still, at least he released his product, which is more than can be said for Neil Stephenson’s Kickstarter failure (the funds remain at large).