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The scenery will stun you, but at some point, Amalur runs out of steam.

“Gorgeous” does not even describe it.

That point was at about forty hours into my second play-through. My obsession with side quests abruptly died, and my attempt to return to the main story left me confused and disinterested. Where was I going, again? Look, there’s an interesting cave. Oh, I’ve already gone there. I haven’t even reached that one port city yet?

First time through, I relished in the freedom Amalur presented me with. I could run around harvesting regents for hours on end if I wanted. No one was going to force me to participate in the main quest beyond a few lines of dialog if I accidentally brushed proximity with them. I could gleefully hunt down every exclamation mark on the map and demand a job from involved parties–again, for hours on end, if I wanted. (And sometimes, I did. It wouldn’t be an RPG without some high-quality, time-wasting grinding.) There was nothing about the main story or the faction quests that particularly pinged my radar, but they were fun enough to participate in, so I went along with it. Winning titles at the end of long, gruelling side campaigns gave me a brief glow of accomplishment.

I was ready to do it all over again, too. Maybe I’d make different allegiances this time. Guilt complex notwithstanding, I could decide to betray all of those peripheral factions and the good-ish people who helped me along the way and become some kind of megalomaniac.

Ultimately, though, the choices were definitely not numerous. Megalomaniac or saint: there was no in-between. And, in the end, what you do in your spare time (inviting the Niskaru Big Bad for tea and slaying all Warsworn, for example) doesn’t at all impact your main quest; you’re still going to save the world, no matter what. Seems a bit contradictory, considering that the game constantly throws in your face your status as the Fateless One. I felt far from fateless; I was continually dragged toward a predetermined endpoint. Apparently you’re also excused from facing the consequences of your actions; minor aspects of the game aside, your choice does not affect your ultimate showdown with Gadflow and Tirnoch.

The other major problem is what could also be considered the game’s most interesting aspect; your character is tabula rasa, the perfect blank slate, a reincarnation of some poor shmuck who was tied to destiny and thus died chained to his grisly demise. You, on the other hand, are displaced from the weave of fate all around you–and, unfortunately for everyone else, you’re also capable of screwing up all their fates, too. Your mere existence is a disturbance in the natural order. Times are a-changin’, my friend, and it’s all your fault.

Too bad you have no idea who you used to be, or maybe you’d be able to form some kind of connection with your character, who is really just a silent hunk of fate-destroying disruption. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t change how you related to other characters, too, but oh, goodness gracious, it does. There are a lot of people in this world who sort of know you or even deeply know you, but lacking the knowledge of the history between you–since they’re certainly not telling–means that you constantly feel adrift in the world of Amalur, one step behind the grand schemings of a world mad on self-destruction. Everyone else is a dozen or a hundred steps ahead of you, and you’re lollygagging behind, trying to contribute to the war effort without really knowing why the war’s on in the first place. I expected to be distracted by side quests, but I didn’t expect to dread returning to the main story when I’d depleted a region of all its exclamation points, and that is exactly what happened.

Amalur also manages to somehow incorporate all of the obvious character stereotypes: your sort-of adviser is an old white man with a beard and wisdom to offer, whenever he pries himself away from his alcoholism; the villain of the piece is creepily voiced with glowing red eyes, so you’d be unlikely to miss that he’s EVIL, capitalized, after your first encounter with him; and, of course, your female sort-of romantic interest is mysterious, scantily clad, and has no more backstory than a thumbtack. Despite the fact that Alyn Shir kicks serious ass, she somehow isn’t aware that armor would be a fashionable (and, more importantly, logical) addition to her wardrobe.

Evil? I would have never guessed. You look downright cheerful.

I get the sensation from Amalur that so much effort was used up streamlining the gameplay and erecting massively impressive scenic views that there wasn’t any time left to also devise a revolutionary plot with compelling characters. Let it be said that the gameplay is indeed extraordinary; it’s a seamless fix for turn- or time-based attack systems, which feel bulky and unwieldy in comparison to Reckoning’s invigorating battles. Similarly, this is obviously a game too pretty not to stare at. The graphics are nothing short of incredible.

That being said: Video games are notorious for uncomplicated characters and stories, but uncomplicated does not have to mean boring. It also does not have to mean repetitive. This is a fantasy story that’s been told time and time before–with elves and dwarves and mischievous gods, oh my–and the only differentiating element is your character, who is fateless and anonymous. Since this actually causes more of a disconnect from the world of Reckoning than it helps connect you to the storyline, I wouldn’t count that as an aspect worth introducing.

I was visually stunned, but all other brain regions were dark. I sank dozens upon dozens of hours into Reckoning, but what I got out of it was, at best, a very fuzzy memory of the story I was being told, or the characters that were supposed to intrigue me. Maybe the point of an RPG isn’t to wax poetic, but I still prefer a gameplay experience that leaves me with more than a fly-catching “huh” after I’ve saved the world. What was I saving it from again?

8/10

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Resident Evil 6: A Precarious Balance Between Action and Survival Horror

My history with the Resident Evil franchise is powerfully sentimental, since Resident Evil 4 was the title that introduced me to video games in the first place. Sure, the plot left something to be desired, and the limitations of the GameCube made certain bosses a total frustration to conquer, but despite its unimaginative title, Resident Evil 4 was incredibly innovative. The traditional zombie story was revamped with new mutations, there was lava in a castle, and my personal favorite: mouth-breathing Regenerators, which gave a younger me the kind of nightmares that wake you up convinced you’re about to be chewed to death. I didn’t get that kind of terror out of Resident Evil 5, so I was beside myself when advertising for Resident Evil 6 clearly heralded a return to the zombies of old–on a much, much grander scale.

Previous Resident Evil stories have featured isolated incidents, but Resident Evil 6 turns that defining feature inside out. The whole world is going to hell in a handbasket, so this incident–or incidents, really–is unlikely to get buried in classified reports. Yet another virus has been created and dispersed in a few locations around the world, and each one of the three main campaigns–following old heroes Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield, and introducing Jake Muller–disperse to handle the threat in their unique way. Leon, as usual, is outgunned and outnumbered, which makes his campaign by far the most terrifying; Chris lucks out with B.S.A.A. backup, and thus leads a crusade through China that’s more Gears of War than survival horror; and Jake, the conflicted wayward son of Albert Wesker, Resident Evil’s most persistent baddie, spends his short campaign running for his life.

It’s unfortunately obvious in this installment that Capcom is backtracking: trying to preserve the new fans that hopped on with action-packed Resident Evil 5 while also trying to placate old diehards who complained about the forgotten survival horror aspect. For the latter, Leon’s campaign does not disappoint. It’s not likely that you’ll be scrounging for bullets, but all the same, if you adjust the brightness of your television as suggested–and play in a dark room–there’s a nerve-fraying bit in the subway tunnels of Tall Oaks that will keep you on edge. For the former, Chris is your guy: his enemies are less zombie-like, featuring instead the anatomical mutations popularized by his last campaign in Resident Evil 5.

Watch out for the dark corners and heavy breathing.

The multiple, intersecting campaigns are a fresh addition to a fairly stagnant franchise. Resident Evil has a history of leaving you alone and vulnerable in overwhelming situations, but in Resident Evil 6, you always have your partner, and at various points, you interact with the other pairs from other campaigns, too. I am not particularly fond of co-op, but while the A.I. is somewhat improved over Resident Evil 5–when Sheva was likely to waste herbs at the slightest provocation–this game is still better played with a human partner, in whatever capacity you can have them.

These campaigns, though, feel unbalanced. The sheer scope of locales is certainly admirable, but while Leon and Chris get a lot of fleshing-out and solid plot-driven action, Jake’s campaign is brief and scattered, with an air of disorganization. This is due largely in part to the elongated timeline: while both Leon and Chris have campaigns that only span a few days, plus a flashback chapter for Chris, Jake’s campaign stretches over half a year. His story drags in comparison to the hyperactive events of Tall Oaks and Lanshiang.

The gameplay mechanics are polished and sometimes even inventive. Technically, running and gunning is now an option, but it won’t get you very far very fast; survival depends heavily on accuracy, something you really don’t get unless you’re aiming while walking or standing totally still. It’s a good fix for Resident Evil 5, when stopping to shoot was still forced, even though the platform was capable of more versatility.

Capcom has also solved the inventory problem of Resident Evil 5; each player has their own inventory, and if you’re playing with an A.I., you’re not responsible for managing their herb and ammo collection. The inventory still hangs over ongoing action, though, so any respite you might have gained in accessing your stuff is lost in the mad shuffle to get in and out of the screen before something gnaws your leg off. Herb ingestion is also easier in tablet form, and it’s possible to organize your stash in a way that gets you healthy without having to mix in the middle of a fight for your life. Herbs as health have never seemed particularly logical, but better to have any kind of health system at all than to give all characters special self-regenerative powers.

The addition of a melee system is also a huge plus; kicking and punching enemies will drain your stamina, and you’ll know when you run out by the depletion of the bar in your status box, as well as your suddenly sluggish movements on screen. You won’t be able to run very well, either, until your character has sufficiently recovered from the onslaught–potentially leaving you stranded in the middle of the hoard you were attempting to escape from.

Rather than the shop system of old, Resident Evil 6 introduces a new mechanic for upgrading not only weapons, but abilities: skill sets. The skill points you pick up while fighting for your life can be traded for increased damage, higher magnification, and how your A.I. partner behaves. While interesting in principle, the limit on how many skills one can have equipped at once is frustrating to someone who occasionally enjoys being overleveled. On the other hand, this is a useful in-game restraint to that kind of behavior, and certainly a unique expansion from the shop system, which made it possible to go into a final boss battle with everything you needed to make that fight extraordinarily easy.

The gameplay is solid, the score is invigorating, the mood teeters just enough into survival horror to be satisfying, but there’s still a resounding meh in the latest addition to the franchise. Ultimately, Resident Evil 6 is trying too hard to be too many different things–a survival horror game, an action game, and a simple puzzle game, all packed with enough content to have the length of an unambitious RPG. With its attention splintered across genres, it leaves irritating potholes behind to trip up on.

The thing that I found most redemptive above Resident Evil 6 was the story–a sentence I never expected to write about this franchise. These tales were poorly paced, but the characters of the Resident Evil franchise have never been particularly compelling before this installment. Helena’s backstory, coupled with the attack on Tall Oaks and the murder of Leon’s beloved President, is actually moving; Chris’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder in the face of prolonged exposure to combat is viciously real; Jake’s reluctant effort to help save the world after his spotted history as a mercenary is sympathetic and redeeming.

The villains are as forgettable as ever, except for their truly cringe-worthy monologues. On the whole, the dialog is regrettable, though the voice acting is improved. There are few new and exciting aspects to the gameplay, and while a balance is struck between “action” and “survival horror,” it’s a precarious one. The stories of the protagonists, though, are compelling. That is what will ultimately keep me replaying this installment, though maxing out all my skills is a close second incentive.

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The villains all look the same, too. The slicked-back hair, the weird fashion choices…

7.5/10