Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Minecraft Story Mode Episode 1: The Order of Stone Review

Telltale Games is known for their episodic interactive movie-esque games like the Walking Dead Season One, Wolf Among Us, Tales From the Borderlands, and others. Every mentioned game has been praised for the quality and how great the storytelling is. That said, many people (myself included) had some doubts as to how Telltale could possible make a game about Minecraft given the lack of story and primary focus of being the iconic square sandbox building game that everyone knows and loves (or hates). Despite a few issues along the way, I'd say that Telltale Games found a way to make it work and work well.

You play as Jesse (either boy or girl, its your choice). Jesse and their friends are trying to win the building competition for the upcoming EnderCon in order to meet one of the legendary heroes from the Order of the Stone. As is the song and dance of video games, things quickly go to hell in a hand basket as you uncover a conspiracy that quickly spirals out of control and threatens to destroy the entire world. It is up to you to find the remaining members from the Order of the Stone and put an end to the horror that is terrorizing the world. 

With Jesse's faithful pig companion by his side, what could possibly go wrong?  Answer: Everything
Telltale Games set out to make a story game that felt like it belonged in Minecraft, and they certainly succeeded. Just like how Tales From the Borderlands looks and felt like the Borderlands series, Minecraft Story Mode accomplishes the same thing. The menus, sounds, and even graphics fit perfectly with the idea of having a story take place in a Minecraft setting. It really feels like the events transpiring are occurring in a world that could actually be built (given enough time) by players in Minecraft, which is a great touch for the game.

Gameplay is broken up into several phases, for lack of a better term. More often than not the player will be watching cutscenes with lots of dialogue, with interaction being the ability to choose what Jesse will say or do next. Once in awhile you will have to walk around in an environment to find something or interact with an object. Then of course there is combat and quick time events in more fast pace sequences. One thing Minecraft Story Mode adds to the equation that is really interesting, and a great touch given the source material, is the ability to craft certain items that are critical to the plot. 

Most Minecraft fanatics will probably know what I am building in this screenshot.
 Unfortunately, using Minecraft's stylized graphics is working against Minecraft Story Mode. While it works for most any situation from an animation standpoint, it falls apart when it comes to lip sync and mouth movement for dialogue. Often the movement of the characters mouth does not match with what is being said and that is to be expected to some extent given that it's difficult to make a character in Minecraft style graphics look like they are actually pronouncing words. This can often be rather distracting and it mars the experience for the player.

Overall, Minecraft Story Mode is off to a great start with the first episode. The story may not be as filled with betrayal and death as other Telltale Games, but it is still interesting nonetheless. It may not be for everyone, but Minecraft Story Mode will be a memorably experience for those capable of approaching it with an open mind. 

RBFB Rating: B-

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Destiny: The Taken King - The Good, the Bad, and the Future

It's been almost a month now since Destiny: The Taken King was released. With the release of this expansion, Destiny has undergone many changes. Most of the changes were good, but there were certainly several things that aren't as good with the beginning of year two for Destiny. We will be going over some of the strengths and weaknesses of The Taken King, discuss a few possible ideas for improvement, and briefly talk about what lies ahead in the future for this series. 

First and foremost, the biggest improvement The Taken King has made is without a doubt how Destiny actually tells its story. One of the biggest complaints from the first year was how poorly implemented the story was. Given all the memorable moments that occurred throughout the first three Halo games and the two spin offs (AKA ODST and Reach), I was certainly scratching my head as to why Bungie had somehow taken ten steps back in presenting a story in their game. The story was always there, but for some reason they decided to lock it up behind a bunch of grimoire cards that only a handful of people are going to read given the declining popularity of reading something longer than a paragraph. 
Talking villains... it's like they actually read my blog... (probably not) XD
 In the first story mission alone, there is more story and cutscenes explaining what is happening than what was present last year. There are more characters talking to the player as they progress, and Bungie uses the levels to help tell parts of the story as well through scripted events and calling out things for the player to look at through masterfully crafted environments. Even the side quests tell much more story than Destiny has ever been known for, and this is an improvement that I hope Bungie keeps working on. Destiny has a great story and universe, but Bungie was never able to properly apply it until now.

The campaign has far more variety than last year. While there is still some of the old 'scan stuff with Ghost and fight off hordes of enemies' that was overused in the Year 1 campaign, The Taken King mixes things up with a variety of interesting new things that happen during missions. From a minor stealth segment, to running from invincible enemies, the campaign for The Taken King provides enough entertainment to keep you playing all the way to the end. Even after the main story is done, there are a bunch of follow up side quests that are part of the epilogue known as “The Taken War”. 

A boss fight at the Court of Oryx.  Just a small tier 1 boss, but a good example of what to expect.

There is even quests and side missions that have nothing to do with Oryx and his dark armies, including an expedition into the Vault of Glass to investigate a mysterious signal. Quests aside, The Taken King also offers players a great deal of things to do while exploring the Dreadnaught. From summoning bosses at the Court of Oryx to treasure chests hidden all over the place, patrol mode offers far more content than it ever has before. The sheer amount of content available in The Taken King is impressive, and it makes me wish that the original game had been more like this. At the very least, Bungie seems to be learning from their mistakes. So as we go forward in the future, I hope Destiny 2 will have the same amount of content as The Taken King if not more.

Destiny has received a lot of praise for the quality of the raid content, and Bungie did not disappoint with the latest raid known as King's Fall. King's Fall is without a doubt the most challenging raid in the game so far, and there is nothing more satisfying in the game than taking down a boss and finally beating the raid. My only complaint about the raid would be that jumping puzzles got overused. One or two were fine, but by the third segment they had outstayed their welcome. 

Screenshot from a recent run of King's Fall.  We were victorious. ^_^
While Destiny now has a great deal of strong points, it has gained some strange weak points that weren't there before. I have a feeling most of these are unintentional and that it is a result of a lack of foresight on Bungie's part given their lack of experience making a loot based game like Destiny, but at least they admit that they are still trying to figure out how to make Destiny better. The biggest issue that needs to be fixed is how unrewarding most activities feel. Nightfalls are barely worth doing anymore as the rewards do not match the challenge, which was also an issue with the Level 35 version of Prison of Elders during House of Wolves where the rewards simply had too low a drop rate to make farming Skolas worth it. Even the Daily Heroic story missions feel less rewarding now that they no longer reward Engrams. Bungie had once said that the loot system would provide better rewards, especially in the raid. Unfortunately this is not the case as there are a lot of people complaining how all they get during King Fall is Moldering Shards and nothing else; even from the final boss. In short, Bungie needs to improve the rewards for all activities and fix the loot system to be a little more intelligent like they had promised they would. 

Oryx's arrival can be considered a herald of good things to come for Destiny... from a gameplay standpoint.
 Next week, an in-game micro transaction store will be added to Destiny. The store will sell eighteen brand new emotes that you can equip to your character. While many people have concerns about this new system, these items are cosmetic only and will not have any effects on gameplay. Not only that, but rumor has it that Bungie will not be doing two mini expansions after The Taken King. If the rumor is true, they will be releasing free updates and new content every few months until Fall 2016 when Destiny 2 comes out. It is unclear if they will do mini expansions for Destiny 2, but it is likely that they will do a 2.5 expansion similar to how The Taken King could be considered to be Destiny 1.5. At this time there is no mention of whether or not this is Bungie's plan but the same source did predict the micro transaction store, which proved to be true. Even that old document leak that described the entire ten year plan Activision has with Bungie mentioned a micro transaction store.

I intend to keep you all posted as new and exciting things happen in Destiny. If the original plan is to be believed, we have at least eight more years worth of Destiny to come and I look forward to seeing where the series goes overtime.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Higurashi When They Cry Chapter 1 Review

Visual novels are a very interesting, and uncommon, genre of games. They are more popular in Japan, but lately this genre has been seeing more movement in other parts of the world. Unfortunately a lot of Japanese visual novels are porn fests at best, and disturbing fetish stories at worst. So there is certainly room for visual novels that break out of that mold and actually try to tell a good and captivating story. This is the case for Higurashi When They Cry.

Just a story about a peaceful village in Japan, right?
 Higurashi When They Cry is a series of fourteen small psychological horror visual novels. It has been around for some time now, but only just recently had an official release in America. At this moment only the first novel is available, and it is unknown when and if the second one will be released. The first novel focuses on a young teenage boy named Keichi Maebara as he and his family move to a small village in Japan known as Hinamizawa. There, Keichi meets a group of girls (and quickly befriends them). While at first the story may seem like one big happy go lucky tale about a group of students going through the trials and tribulations of life while taking part in a rather intense game club. However, this all gradually goes to hell in a hand basket when Keichi begins to uncover a dark secret within the village itself. From there things only take a turn for the worst as Keichi tries to unravel the mystery behind a series of death that occur once a year during the Cotton Drifting Festival.

...right?  Well at least it is for the first hour or so, then it becomes a nightmare.
Player interaction varies in visual novels, and in the case of Higurashi, the only thing the player does is click or press enter to advance the text. You never make any choices, and the ending will always be the same. As a result, visual novels have a very niche market given how little gameplay there is. Higurashi makes up for this weakness by being well written and combining that with sound effects and music to help add life to the story. As a result, there are times when Higurashi is absolutely terrifying. It doesn't rely on cheap jump scares like most western horror does, and instead uses the unknown and ordinary to create an intense and terrifying situation as the story progresses. Unlike many visual novels that use big CG art scenes to tell parts of the story, Higurashi relies on text and character portraits alone. 

There isn't enough good psychological horror out there in video games, and I can only hope that someday there will be more games like Higurashi When They Cry that tell an interesting story while doing a better job scaring the player than most western horror could ever hope to accomplish. It may not be for everyone, but players patient enough to sit through a 5 to 8 hour visual novel like Higurashi When They Cry will be in for one well polished and terrifying experience.

RBFB Rating: A

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Journey Review

Every once in awhile you will find a game that stands out from everything else. This can be for a variety of reasons from negative things like ridiculous game breaking bugs that should never have been in the release build of a game (looking at you Ubisoft) or any number of controversial issues. In a more positive light, however, a game can leave an impression on the player that they remember for years to come. Journey is the latter. Back when it first came out on Playstation 3 in 2012, Journey provided a very unique and memorable experience. In a way, Journey is the kind of game that could be considered art that you, the player, experience. Journey was developed by ThatGameCompany, whom are known for making games like Flow and Flower, and if you have played those then you know that you are in for a highly memorable experience.

Journey is a very simple game. You play as a entity draped in a red cloak and your objective is to reach a mysterious mountain out in the distance. That is it. As the saying goes, it's not the destination but the journey that matters. Between you and the mountain is a vast desert littered with ruins of some long lost civilization. As you progress, a story unfolds through visions at the end of each level. There is no dialogue and you are not told directly what happens. This is one of Journey's many strengths, the fact that it allows you to piece the story together yourself and figure out what it all means.

While you start the journey completely alone, Journey incorporates a very interesting element of multiplayer into the game where you can encounter a second player while traveling toward the mountain. You can't see the name of the player and you can't communicate to them with voice chat either. The only form of interaction in this game is a music tone that your character makes when pressing the circle button. It is entirely up to you whether you choose to travel with this other player or go at your own pace, but having someone along for the trip makes the haunting world of Journey a little less lonely.

Journey could be considered a combination of a walking game (like Dear Esther) and a three dimensional platformer. Although as far as difficulty goes, Journey is fairly easy and devoid of challenging gameplay in favor of presenting an experience. ThatGameCompany knew exactly what kind of game they wanted Journey to be, and did not put in unnecessary mechanics at any point. They made it very easy to figure out how to navigate through the levels with a very simplistic control scheme that doesn't require a UI. 
This is a screenshot of actual gameplay, notice the lack of UI (User Interface).
 On the Playstation 3, Journey looked incredible and it looks even better on the Playstation 4. The environments have a great amount of detail and the vast sand dunes look great. Sand moves seemingly dynamically based on your movement and the sunlight reflecting off of the sand results in some very beautiful lighting effects throughout the game.

There are only a handful of games that could be considered artistic experiences that experiment with how story is told in a video game, but Journey is the prime example of how video games can tell stories in ways that other forms of entertainment like books and movies can't. Of course, Journey is the kind of game that won't appeal to everyone. If you are open minded to something that is a little out of the ordinary from what you'd expect from a video game, then I recommend Journey. It may be a short experience, but it is worth every penny.

RBFB Rating: A+

Friday, June 12, 2015

Heroes of the Storm Review

I've never really been a particular fan of MOBA games. League of Legends, the original DotA, DotA 2, none of them ever really caught my interest. To be honest, I was convinced that the same would occur with Heroes of the Storm. I though it was a cool idea for a game, but I felt that it just wasn't the game for me. Somehow I got lucky enough to get into the beta for Heroes of the Storm and checked it out for myself. Immediately I could tell it was a much more simplified MOBA than other games that had come before, not that this is a bad thing mind you. I played a few games during the beta, and I had a blast. Now the game is out, and I anticipate that I'll be spending many an hour in this game.

Heroes of the Storm uses a wide variety of characters from various Blizzard games. You'll see recognizable characters like Jim Raynor, Kerrigan, Thrall, Jaina, Diablo, Tyrael, and many more. While the roster is nowhere near as big as other games like League of Legends or DotA 2, Blizzard does have plans to expand this gradually with more heroes over time. In fact, the Butcher from Diablo 3 will be added into the game at the end of this month along with a Diablo themed stage known as The Eternal Conflict. 

Gameplay in Heroes of the Storm is very similar to what you'd expect in a MOBA. You and four other players go down three lanes, destroy enemy defenses, and take out their main building (known as the core in this game) in order to win. Heroes of the Storm adds its own twist to the gameplay however. On every stage, there is some sort of additional objective that you can pursue. By completing this objective before your opponent does, you can turn the tide of battle in your favor. Some examples of this would be a ghostly pirate ship firing at your opponent's base or summoning a large dragon you can control to tear through minions and buildings alike. It is this extra objective that makes Heroes of the Storm stand out among other MOBA games in a way that is unique and interesting.

Typical of Blizzard games, particularly the older RTS games like Warcraft III, Blizzard has wasted no opportunities in adding in some humor into the game. The tutorial is a silly experience which is enhanced by having a variety of characters interacting with one another. Even during actual gameplay characters will interact with one another before and during the match. Of course, characters will also so a variety of amusing things when you continually click on them. A lot of the dialogue includes tongue in cheek humor in which Blizzard makes fun of certain things in their games or events that have happened. This includes a line from the would be main character of the doomed Starcraft: Ghost, making a joke that gets “put on hold indefinitely” or Falstad referencing the infamous Red Shirt guy from Blizzcon a few years back.

I personally have been having a blast with this game, but I know that it is certainly not for everyone. Fans of LoL, DotA 2, or any other well known MOBA will likely not lose many players to Heroes of the Storm. A lot of people won't like the more simplified, non-stalemate style of Heroes of the Storm where you don't have to worry about buying items and deal with less complex talent builds. That said, there will doubtlessly be a large playerbase that is going to make this their MOBA of choice. It may just be for the prolific cast of characters, but that is one of the things that makes Heroes of the Storm so interesting.

While Heroes of the Storm is free to play, it does feel like there is some amount of encouragement to spend real money at some point. Even if you don't buy heroes and just use whoever is part of the free roster for that week, there are boosts, skins, mounts, and other things on the store that you can buy to enhance your gameplay.  This is the good kind of Free to Play where you never feel like you are forced to buy things in order to play the game (basically almost every mobile game in existence).

Overall, Heroes of the Storm may never hold a candle to bigger MOBA games, but there is room for it to coexist peacefully and grow into a large game in its own right.

RBFB Rates Heroes of the Storm: GG (Great Game)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Destiny: Expansion II - House of Wolves

As many of you are well aware, the latest expansion for Destiny went live a few weeks ago. Raid controversy aside, House of Wolves added far more content to the game than The Dark Below did, a lot more. More story missions, more crucible maps, a new endgame crucible activity, a brand new PVE game type called Arena, and even a new social space. Compared to the mediocrity of The Dark Below, House of Wolves blew players away. I'll discuss all the new additions and give some overall feedback for everything.

First and foremost, the story was expanded on through new missions. The House of Wolves have betrayed the Awoken, and now the Queen of the Awoken is out for revenge. Due to events in the original campaign mode for Destiny, you owe the Queen and are summoned to help the Awoken track down the leader of the House of Wolves, Skolas. Unlike the previous story missions, the events of House of Wolves are much easier to follow. There is a cohesive narrative, and characters actually talk to you and each other as the story unravels. This is a much better experience than the original campaign where it was just your Ghost spewing out exposition with the occasional cutscene that adds little to the story and explains nothing (AKA Not having time to explain why she doesn't have time to explain). Bungie also kept things fresh by having a few surprises along the way, including a brief visit to a certain area featured in Destiny's main PVE Endgame. Overall, the story missions in House of Wolves are a great leap in the right direction. It may not be on the same level as a Halo campaign, but it is getting closer.

Of course, there are new competitive multiplayer maps to play in the Crucible. Two maps in particular really stand out, which are a base on Phobos (one of Mars' moons), and the ruins of a small town in Europe known as Widow's Court. Widow's Court in particular is very unique because it does not reuse any art style or themes present in other locations on Earth like Twilight Gap or anywhere in that overused place known as Old Russia. The map on Phobos has one of the most incredible skyboxes in a Destiny Crucible map, second only to one used on Mercury. All locations are a great addition, and I think Bungie did a great job designing them. 

Some of the items being sold for Trials of Osiris this week.
Continuing with the Crucible, a new competitive game type was added as well. Of course, I realize that calling it competitive would be an understatement. This new activity, The Trials of Osiris, has no matchmaking and is only for the best of the best in PVP. Loose three times and you are kicked out of the activity, but you can buy another pass and try again if you desire. Performing well will earn you cool weapons and armor, and potentially a visit to an exclusive social area on Mercury known as The Lighthouse. This activity is not for everyone, not by a long shot. That said, it is a great addition to the game that gives high competitive players a reason to keep coming back to Destiny on a weekly basis. 

Before discussing the Arena, it would be best to talk about the new social hub called the Reef. This location was featured only in cutscenes in the original game, so being able to go there is a great addition. At the Reef, you encounter various NPCs that offer bounties and gear for all House of Wolves related content. I'm glad that Bungie chose to open this area up, rather than taking the easy way out by throwing in another NPC at the Tower. 

The skybox for the Reef social area, Vestian Outpost.
 The new PVE activity known as the Arena (AKA The Prison of Elders) is located at the Reef as well. In Prison of Elders you must prove yourself to the Awoken by fighting off increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Then at the final round you will fight a boss and it's annoyingly strong minions. By completing all rounds you unlock a beautiful treasure trove, which is where all your rewards are located. In addition to the basic matchmaking version of Prison of Elders, there are three challenge modes that are available per week, with two of them constantly changing between 6 different challenges. These don't have matchmaking, just like the raids; so you will need to bring two friends along with you if you want to have an easier time overcoming the challenge levels of Prison of Elders.

There is a special key you can obtain through completing Prison of Elders and various House of Wolves related bounties that allows you to open a large chest at the end of Prison of Elders. This is where you can obtain some relatively nice rewards but unfortunately a lot of the gear and weapons you will find are pretty terrible compared to what you can get through Trials of Osiris. Until a recent patch, these Treasure Keys were far too rare making Prison of Elders seem rather pointless. At the very least you are guaranteed an exotic weapon when you open the large treasure chest with a key for the very first time.

Want to upgrade your gear?  All you need is some Etheric Light... if you can get any.
Overall, I really have been enjoying all the new content from House of Wolves. It wasn't perfect, but a recent patch has fixed several issues. That said, House of Wolves does have a few issues still. Unless you can get a group for the Prison of Elders challenge modes, getting Etheric Light to upgrade your armor and weapons can be difficult. They drop from Nightfalls, but that is entirely controlled through RNG unfortunately. However getting to Rank 3 and 5 in Iron Banner allows you to purchase 2 Etheric Lights, which can help you gradually catch up and reach Level 34. My only complaint is how it feels like PVE players have to dive through a bunch of hoops to get good gear, while PVP players just have to find (or get carried by) a good group for Trials of Osiris. Not only that, but a lot of vendor and Queen's Wrath weapons are completely useless. Even the guns you get from Prison of Elders don't seem as good as the ones from Trials of Osiris.

That said, Destiny is in a much better place than it was at launch and it is good to see that Bungie is constantly improving the game. But stay tuned, because it sounds like a lot more content is on the way. Rumor has it that the big code named “Comet” DLC is about to be announced at E3 this year. This new DLC is being labeled by many as Destiny 1.5 with all the new content it will be adding to the game. There is a lot for Destiny fans to be excited for as Year 1 of Destiny's 10 year plan comes to a close. Stay tuned for more information about all future content in Destiny.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae Impressions

Final Fantasy XV, formerly known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, has been in development hell for a very long time. Entire series of games have come and gone in the time that this one game has been in development. Now at long last, players can finally get their hands on a demo of the game (provided they buy Final Fantasy Type-0 HD of course). While it is clearly a promotional tool to make the game a day one purchase for gamers, I imagine that the second purpose of this demo is to show people at long last what Square Enix has been working on for the fifteenth installation in the series. In a way, having a demo out for the game brings us one step closer to a day when the full game will be released.

In short, Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae is an incredible experience. The demo alone offers more content than most games released these days. While it will take roughly three to four hours to beat the demo, there is lots to do in the demo afterward including a fight against a large behemoth by the name of Deadeye.

Apparently the demo takes place early on in the game, likely sometime after the intro and any tutorials that proceed it. Noctis and his three friends are stranded in the region known as Duscae when their car breaks down. The goal in the demo is to raise 24,000 Gil so thatCidney can repair the car. The player accomplishes this by selling items and completed various side jobs. You can get all the money you need by killing Deadeye, but this will require the player to be fairly high level to have any hope of success.

That's not a skybox.  That is, for the most part, all terrain that you can explore. 

Gameplay is very similar to Kingdom Hearts and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. The player controls Noctis during combat and is able to freely move around and choose targets to attack. Targeting enemies and landing hits can be a little difficult at times, but I imagine this system will receive a great deal of adjustments prior to release. Combat occurs right on the spot rather than being transported to some random battlefield like in older RPGs.  

In the demo, the player is given the entirety of the Duscae region to run around in and explore. This is the first true open world Final Fantasy, and this change is a welcome one. If you see something in the distance, you are able to go there in most cases. This small portion of the world begs to be explored, leaving all kinds of neat things for the player to discover. There is even enemies that will dynamically spawn from drop ships that look like they belong in some kind of science fiction movie. 

As you explore, you find resting areas where you can camp for the night and save your game.  By using these places, your characters will cook up a meal using ingredients in your inventory and then rest up.  The food provides various buffs like boosted EXP and negative status effect immunity for the next day, which can help give the player an edge against more difficult opponents.  

Bet you can't guess what they're looking at.

While it is clearly still in development, Final Fantasy XV is a gorgeous game. The environments are beautiful, characters have a lot of detail on them, and it all feels like a realistic world rather than some area that exists solely for gameplay. If there has ever been a game that made use of the power of the current generation consoles, it would be Final Fantasy XV.  Character animations are highly life-like, and they will even adjust their movements based on terrain.  There are all kinds of nice little details added to the world, like cars driving along roads that will move around you if you are in the way.  It is this kind of attention to detail that really brings the game to life in a way that is only possible on the current generation.  That said, there are some minor frame rate issues and other bugs that can occur. But with how polished this demo is, I can't even begin to imagine what the retail release will be like.

If you are a fan of Final Fantasy or RPGs, you owe it to yourself to check out Episode Duscae. Even if you don't really care for Type-0 HD, the demo alone makes it a worthy purchase. It is unknown when Final Fantasy XV will come out, but I imagine it will be sometime before the end of this year or early next year. Final Fantasy XV will be available on PS4 and Xbox One only.