Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Scions of Shannara

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The first installment of Terry Brooks’ Heritage of Shannara tetralogy, a sequel series to his original Shannara trilogy, opens with a millennium-old man who wakes from Druid Sleep and converses with the shade of the supposedly-long-deceased Allanon. The action quickly moves to sibling protagonists Par and Coil Ohmsford, who find themselves on the run from Federation secret police known as the Seekers, with an outlaw ultimately rescuing them. They eventually chance a mysterious woodswoman and the antediluvian Cogline, who lived in the time of Brin Ohmsford and Kimber Boh, claiming to be Allanon’s messenger and nothing that the siblings’ cousin Wren Ohmsford and Walker Boh expect them.

The brothers find their way to Morgan Leah’s hunting lodge, aiming to reach Shady Vale, although Morgan cautions them against doing so due to a Seeker presence there, and himself wants to seek Walker Boh. Then they head to the dwarven city of Culhaven, where Teel and Steff join them on their quest for Walker. Steff and Teel sporadically go missing throughout the course of the novel, with the latter’s disappearance playing part in the narrative later on. A fight with Spider Gnomes erupts at one point, with Par becoming their captive temporarily. A meeting with Wren Ohmsford at Myrian Lake eventually occurs.

The quest to recover the long-believed-lost Sword of Shannara comes to fruition, with another significant character, Padishar Creel, introduced, believing he knows where the fabled blade is in a place known as the Pit. Someone of a love interest, Damson Rhee, soon enters the story, with a brief excursion through Parma Key by the party. One of the chief antagonists, the First Seeker Rimmer Dall (leader of the Federation’s order), makes himself known, and plays an especial role towards the end of the novel. A traitor is eventually suspected in the midst of the Ohmsford brothers and their allies, with the story concluding afterwards.

Overall, this was another enjoyable Shannara book, with plenty of action and some occasional politicking by adversaries such as Rimmer Dall, although one might scoff at some of the characters’ name choices such as Par and Coil. Furthermore, while Brooks’ series supposedly occurs in a futuristic yet more-primitive Earth, very little evidence of the world’s notable evolutionary history emerges throughout the story, making this detail about the backstory something of an afterthought in hindsight. There is also a notable gap in the history between the original Shannara trilogy and its sequel series, particularly regarding the antagonistic Federation, but I definitely don’t regret reading the book.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Axiom Verge

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In today’s gaming world, top-notch graphics are perpetually the trend, although there occasionally releases a game attempting to recapture the spirit of classical titles, the case with Capcom’s ninth and tenth main entries of its Rockman/Mega Man franchise. In 2015 came the release of the throwback title Axiom Verge for the PlayStation 4, its chief inspiration the 2-D sidescrolling Metroid games developed by Nintendo. The game would see a port to computers and other platforms such as the Nintendo Switch, and I managed to snag a digital PC copy for free when it was advertised as such. It’s definitely a great homage to classic videogames, but is this a good thing?

Players control a scientist named Trace who awakens in an ancient yet technologically-advanced world after a traumatic injury, and navigate him through a large interconnected world akin to the titles from which it derives, namely the RPG Castlevanias and classic Metroids. Trace can collect different ammunition to fire at enemies, which may or may not yield red recovery shards upon defeat, or later on when the player acquires the capability, data bombs helpful in clearing “glitchy” unpassable areas of the world. Players can further collect items that permanently increase Trace’s maximum health, weapon power, and ammo range.

Trace can also collect powerups that aid exploration, such as a hook to grapple ceilings and trench coat upgrades letting him teleport forward a few spaces, useful for passing through narrow walls or laser barriers unpassable by standard means. He ultimately acquires the capability to summon a small drone that can explore on its own, able to navigate passageways Trace cannot, the protagonist later capable to teleport to its location. The general game mechanics work for the most part, but players, even on the Normal difficulty, can expect to die often, although I actually beat the final boss battle my first try.

Death wouldn’t be too big an issue if players didn’t have to endure an annoying unskippable ten-second-long sequence where Trace revives at the last save room, visits to them restoring his health as well. Thankfully, death doesn’t mean Game Over, as players still retain their progress, and outside save points, the player can record their advancement and quit anytime. Perhaps the biggest issue with the game is the ease at points of getting lost in the massive dungeon, compounded by the lack of teleportation capability throughout the world. Interaction overall could have been better, but is by no means a total writeoff.

Games of its kind tend to have minimalist storytelling, and Axiom Verge is no exception, although it does have decent backstory and mythos. The shoddy direction at points on how to advance is perhaps the biggest issue with the narrative, although it definitely has its merits.

The audio, however, has a lot more, given the superb retro-style music and sound effects that create an awesome atmosphere, although there is slight overreliance on ambience at times.

Further aiding the game’s retro feel are the graphics, whose quality hovers somewhere between those of 8 and 16-bit titles of yore, with colorful, well-designed environments that well reflect the techno feel of the setting, and fluid animation of the sprites. There are occasional palette-swapped elements, but this is only a minor blemish in an otherwise superb-looking title.

Finally, the game is fairly short, less than half a day long (I beat it in around ten hours) straight through, although there’s plenty to boost playtime such as uncovering every corner of the world map, finding every item, and so forth, the difficulty selection enhancing lasting appeal, as well. The ending can also vary depending upon how much of the world the player has uncovered.

Overall, Axiom Verge is for the most part a superb homage to videogames of old, given its relatively enjoyable gameplay enhanced by retro aurals and visuals, not to mention the abundance of extra content. However, that doesn’t necessarily equate to it being a masterpiece, since it does bear issues regarding things such as the potentially high player death count, the ease at points of getting stuck in the massive world, the minimalistic plotline, and the reliance on ambience regarding certain areas of the sound presentation. Regardless, developer Thomas Happ did a good job with this game, and I hope it’s not for him a one-hit wonder.

The Good:
+Combat and exploration can be fun.
+Aurals have great retro feel.
+Excellent throwback visuals.
+Plenty side content.

The Bad:
-Expect to die often.
-Easy to get stuck/lost.
-Not enough plot.
-Sound a little too ambient at points.

The Bottom Line:
A good Metroid-type game.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PC
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 5/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable, can be slightly hard on Normal mode.
Playing Time: < 12 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Young Sheldon

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Prequel series to Big Bang focusing on Sheldon Cooper as he grows up in East Texas. I like how with That '70s Show it's far more about the characters and comedic situations than the period in which it occurs (the late eighties), and the last episode of the season has ties to Bang.

The Big Bang Theory

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Sitcom about genius friends who befriend the intellectually-average Penny. Has a satisfying conclusion, and I really like how they avoid political humor and references. The cultural references to media like Star Wars will still be relevant years from now, and I definitely enjoyed this show in its run.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Baki

 

A fighting anime focused on the eponymous Baki Hanma who seeks to surpass his father. Had some pretty good fight scenes, but it wasn't overly memorable or anything.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Deep Look - Cuphead



The Devil’s Game

Growing up, I’ve always had an affinity for classic cartoons produced by various studios such as Disney, Warner Brothers, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thus, when the independent game Cuphead was released, I definitely took notice at its retro animation style, with a 1930s-inspired jazz soundtrack thrown into the mix. However, since my PC is incapable of playing contemporary computer games without technical issues and I had no intention to buy an Xbox One just for the game, I felt I could live without it. In 2019, though, a port to the Nintendo Switch released, and given the attractive nature of the game and positive reviews, I quickly felt inclined to give it a purchase, but was it worth it?

The game opens with the eponymous Cuphead and his brother Mugman stumbling upon a casino run by the Devil himself, where they have a winning streak at craps and are promised the gambling joint itself if they win one more round. Naturally, they lose, with the Devil consequentially wanting their souls, although he allows the siblings to keep them if they collect soul contracts from debtors doubling as bosses. The narrative doesn’t receive supplemental depth or development until the player reaches the endgame, and is scarcely a reason to purchase the game or a driving factor throughout.

Odds are that most mainstream gamers won’t even get to see the ending, given the unforgiving nature of the gameplay, focused mostly on boss battles. The fictitious Inkwell Isles serves as a top-town hub between said fights and run-and-gun levels where the player can obtain coins, five per stage, to use for purchasing equippable items from Porkrind’s Emporium, but all except perhaps one come with catches. Before entering a boss battle, the player can choose from simple or regular difficulty, although one has to win on the latter challenge setting in order to actually acquire one of many soul contracts necessary to advance to the endgame battles.

The chosen difficulty affects how many variant phases a boss fight has, with the bosses altering their attack patterns after the player has damaged them enough with finger blasts or whatever alternate weapons they equip on Cuphead or Mugman. In each battle, the player has three hit points that deplete whenever the active character takes damage, with the expenditure of all HP resulting in a loss and need to restart the fight from scratch. Death also shows how far in the fight the player got and what phase they were in, the opportunities to recommence the battle, quit to the overworld, or exit to the title screen presenting themselves as well.

The player can equip an item that grants them an additional hit point, although this comes at the expense of weaker attacks, with the only truly useful buyable ability being one that allows Cuphead or Mugman to dash without receiving damage. As either protagonist attacks, they accumulate points that eventually allow them to perform one of three different super moves acquirable from single-screen mausoleum stages where the player must “parry” ghosts by pressing the jump button when hovering over them, and where allowing a ghost to reach the central urn necessitates a restart.

The opportunity to parry attacks also presents itself in boss battles, the player capable of deflecting pink projectiles for supplemental super move points, although ill timing results in damage to hit points, which can make this risky. Outside bosses, the player can participate in side-scrolling run-and-gun stages to acquire up to five coins, with the rules regarding hit points playing part here as well, and death showing how far the player got in the level before having to start from scratch. Quitting a run-and-gun level also completely forgoes coins acquired at the time of death, and a few of these have daunting mini-bosses before at their endings.

The general absence of room for error will definitely off-put more casual players, and if they take damage early in a boss or run-and-gun stage, they might as well just die deliberately. While one can easily track boss attack patterns, there’s heavy randomization as to how and when they execute their actions, and even if a player knows what’s necessary to win, pulling off victories can still be tedious, given the general chaotic nature of combat and need to pay meticulous attention to all parts of the game screen. However, there are some rare bright spots, for unlike a certain masochistic RPG series whose name rhymes with “bark coals,” players can actually pause the action of boss fights.

Control has more positives, given the general linear direction and difficulty of losing oneself within the game world, not to mention simple menus and remappable controls, which some online guides highly recommend, although I actually didn’t have much issue with the default settings. The only true major issue in this area is the sometimes-long loading times, inexcusable given the non-compact-disc-based disposition of the game medium, but interaction is generally unproblematic.

The music, consisting of 1930s-esque jazz and vocal barbershop tunes, is another highlight that actually might make the soundtrack a purchase preferable to the game itself, with the cartoony sound effects further reflecting the retro milieu. Music during the load screens would have been welcome, however, but the aurals are another area in which Cuphead does better than worse.

Aside from the chaotic nature of the gameplay screen especially during boss battles, the visuals largely help more than hurt, with a retro 1930s animation style reflective of cartoons from the decade, fluid in animation and sporting some nice designs.

Though the game is theoretically beatable in one sitting, frequent repeated boss battles might drive ultimate playtime well beyond that range, and those seeking lasting appeal will find it in the form of in-game achievements.

In the end, Cuphead has most of the makings of a masterpiece, with its unproblematic controls, excellent soundtrack, and gorgeous art direction, but severely fumbles in its tedious, unaccommodating gameplay and unengaging narrative, the latter raising the question of why hardcore gamers consider it “rewarding” other than for bragging rights. I very much regret my purchase and have no intention to finish it; while some may suggest that its solid presentation values compensate for the gameplay, playing a game in my opinion should never be a chore, and being top of the class in art and music is reason to buy an artbook or soundtrack, not a videogame.

Recommended?
Hesitantly