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Spiffing Reads: Geralt in Real Life, Trump vs Final Fantasy VII and Bye Bye Wii U

This week on Spiffing Reads, we start with a look at who Geralt is in real life…

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The voice behind The Witcher (Eurogamer)

Even though I’ve never played any of the Witcher games (except the board game), I found this a fascinating read. Partly because it turns out that Geralt lives in Bournemouth. It was also fascinating to read about the divorce between Geralt as perceived by the game-playing public and the actual nature of the voiceover job – just a few days in a sound studio that was quickly forgotten about as the actor moved on to other projects.

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Punching Nazis (Eurogamer)

Last week I featured a well-written article from Mr Biffo about his uncomfortable feelings surrounding the internet celebration of the smack in the face received by neo-Nazi Richard Spencer live on TV. This article by Alexis Kennedy covers the same topic with some excellent, well backed-up points. It turns out that Nazis really WANT to be punched – because it means you’ve given up arguing against their skewed world view.

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Love, Loss and the Human Threads of The Banner Saga (Kotaku UK)

This article passed me by last week, but I’m glad I discovered it – it’s another very well written piece by Sam Greer, who wrote an excellent article on Shadow of the Colossus a while back. This time she muses on what makes The Banner Saga so damn good – and after reading it, I’m itching to sample the game for myself.

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20 years after its release, Final Fantasy VII’s Trumpian dystopia has arrived (A.V. Club)

At first glance, this article seems like a very stupid idea – a comparison of the Donald Trump administration with the imaginary world of Final Fantasy VII. But if you ignore that and read on, the author makes some really interesting points and covers some political ramifications of Trump’s presidency that I hadn’t even considered. Splendid stuff.

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Video games don’t love or hate you – they’re just built that way (Eurogamer)

RIP Wii U: Nintendo’s glorious, quirky failure (The Guardian)

And finally, we have a couple of great articles by Keith Stuart. The first pulls back the veil on video games and reveals the simple programming tricks that can fool us into thinking computer opponents in games have some kind of personality. The bit about how AI racers are programmed in Micro Machines is fascinating – it turns out there’s no AI at all.

The second is a bittersweet look back at the Wii U, a machine that no one seemed to understand, yet still had some of the best games released in the past five years. Bye bye Wii U, I for one will miss you.

Sob.


Spiffing Reads is a regular feature where we pick out the best gaming articles of the week. If you’ve read anything interesting, please let us know in the comments.

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Review: Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones

fire-emblem-sacred-stones-cover-art-gbaNintendo’s Virtual Console policy continues to frustrate me. Certain titles are exclusive to the Wii U or 3DS, which makes sense up to a certain point – Wii games wouldn’t really work on a handheld, for example. But why make Game Boy Advance games exclusive to Wii U? Surely the only reason is to drive sales of the ailing console, yet these games would be much better suited to playing on the 3DS. Why can’t GBA games be sold on both consoles? Why not have the option to buy the games once and download them on both platforms, like Sony offers with the PS3/PS4 and Playstation Vita?

What’s especially irritating is that Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones was previously made available on the 3DS as part of the 3DS Ambassadors programme for early adopters of the console. Yet five years down the line, these games have still yet to be made available to ‘regular’ punters. Come on Nintendo, open up the vaults to everyone, regardless of which console they own – there’s pure gold to be had in those game coffers.

And Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones really is pure gold. I remember at the time of its release, it was criticised as essentially being a reskin of the previous title in the series, which was simply called Fire Emblem in the west. Even though the latter was the seventh game in the turn-based strategy RPG series, it was the first to be localised for western audiences, and it was an absolute cracker. I reminisced about it for 1o1 Video Games That Made My Life Slightly Better a few years ago, particularly about its unforgiving permadeath mechanic, which ended up leaving me with the thousand-yard-stare of a war general who’s seen to much. So many purple-haired youngsters sent to their deaths…

Good old Seth, what a powerhouse that man is.

Good old Seth, what a powerhouse that man is.

Actually, I never quite managed to see that game to its end – by the later levels, I’d lost so many characters that it was becoming impossible to get through the stages with my weakened band of war heroes. Sacred Stones on Wii U, on the other hand, benefits from the ‘Restore Point’ mechanic that’s added to all Virtual Console games – which essentially lets you save at any point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I abused this mechanic to the full, so by the end I still had a full crew of warriors (until the brutal final battle, that is).

I’m still a little conflicted about this: by carefully saving regularly and replaying sections if a character died, I was able to see the inter-character relationships develop across the game. But it also felt a little like cheating, and it meant I never quite experienced the highs and lows of seeing a favourite character just about scrape through to fight another day, or see a dutifully raised knight perish suddenly thanks to a silly mistake or unexpected ambush. Still, at least I finished the damn thing.

Ah, Dozla - so playful with that axe!

Ah, Dozla – so playful with that axe!

It’s clear that Intelligent Systems realised that people love seeing characters bloom and get to know each other, hence why this mechanic is hugely beefed up in the most recent games, Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem: Fates. They also saw the good sense to add mid-level save points.

Sacred Stones isn’t quite as good as series pinnacle Awakening, but for my money the story is much better than its prequel, Fire Emblem. The pixellated graphics also have a wonderful charm to them – in many ways I prefer them to the more beefed up graphics of later entries in the series. Having said that, they look utterly shit on the big TV screen, as pixels become the size of fists and lose all their charm – I played the game using the gamepad screen instead, on which the graphics seemed much more at home.

Finishingo Sacred Stones has left me hankering for more Fire Emblem, although thankfully I still have the DS title Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon waiting in the wings. Although again, it’s on the Wii U and not the 3DS, its natural home. Why, Nintendo, why?

Franz starts off as a bit of a weed, so it's satisfying to see him grow up into an armoured death dealer.

Franz starts off as a bit of a weed, so it’s satisfying to see him grow up into an armoured death dealer.

Hopefully all this Virtual Console nonsense will be sorted out the the Nintendo Switch, so finally we can have all of our Nintendo games in one place, as well as the option to play them at home or on the go. And while I think about it, I would love to see the big N localise the initial six games in the Fire Emblem series, which still haven’t made it to the west. Go on, Nintendo, you know you want to.

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Spiffing Reads: Devil’s Third and Bye-Bye Wii U

This week on Spiffing Reads, it’s (almost) all about the Wii U, long may it rest in peace.

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The ups, downs and future of Tomonobu Itagaki’s Devil’s Third (Polygon)

Devil’s Third came out on the Wii U last year to less than glowing reviews. It’s torturous development history over 8 years and across numerous publishers makes for a fascinating story. It may not have turned out to be the best game in the world, but you have to admire Tomonobu Itagaki’s tenaciousness in getting the damn thing finished.


Farewell Then: Wii Barely Knew U (Kotaku UK)

Production of the Wii U is coming to an end, after the machine failed to live up to sales expectations and struggled to find an audience. Still, it’s well loved in my house, where it gets used daily for Netflix, iPlayer and occasional bouts of Bayonetta 2.

Housing Ladder arcade game has players dodging buy-to-let investors (The Guardian)

Before there were video game arcades, there were arcades packed with electro-mechanical machines. Now this artist is making electro-mechanical machines that carry statements about 21st-century living.


Spiffing Reads is a regular feature where we pick out the best gaming articles of the week. If you’ve read anything interesting, please let us know in the comments.

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Review: Child of Light

child_of_light_artMy first impressions of Child of Light weren’t that great. I’d realised that week that I just don’t particularly get on with 2D platformers any more, and after half an hour of jumping around I was ready to give up after “the same old platforms and puzzles reared their ugly heads”.

But I’m glad I went back to it, because it actually turns out to be a fun little game.

Of course, really it’s not a platformer at all, it’s a 2D RPG, and soon after the point at which I initially gave up I received the gift of flight in the form of tiny fairy wings. This turned out to be a literal game changer, completely removing the need for leaping about – and it made the game much more fun as a result. By drifting lazily through the levels on my tiny wings, I had more space to appreciate the real beauty of the hand-drawn artwork in that game. And it really is a stunner. “A fairy-tale storybook come to life” is the phrase at the forefront of my mind – and in fact the game presents itself as a tale of a fantasy kingdom being retold.

Also, it has the best hair animation I’ve ever seen. Your tresses float along behind you as if carried on some invisible current, an effect that even drew coos of appreciation from the normally cynical Mrs Merriweather.

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Speaking of Mrs Merriweather, she did enquire at one point why I was playing a “girl’s game”. I considered the evidence. Yes, I was controlling a princess with fairy wings. Yes, one of the members of my party was an adorably cute mouse called Robert with a tiny hunting bow. Yes, I had fabulous hair. Hmmm.

At that point I did what any red-blooded male would do under the circumstances… and berated her for her narrow-mindedness when it came to gender divisions. I am fully in touch with my feminine side, and it thinks that mouse is  SO GODDAMNED CUTE I COULD JUST EAT IT ALL UP.

Ahem.

Going back to the game, it’s not all hairstyles over substance. The turn-based battle system is pretty nifty, with a well-implemented skill tree that had me carefully considering my strategy and play style as I chose which path to go down. The battle system itself relies on a meter that shows a ‘wait phase’ and an ‘attack phase’ – you can line up attacks at the beginning of the attack phase, but if you get hit between the start and the end of the attack phase, your attack is cancelled and your character gets pushed back down to the wait phase. Of course, you can inflict the same annoyance on enemies, too. It’s certainly not a new system – I’m certain I’ve played a game that used something like this before, possibly Skies of Arcadia – but it works really well.

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One thing that doesn’t work well is the game’s insistence in presenting dialogue in tortuous rhyme. It raised a small smile at first, but then when the characters carried on speaking in rhyming couplets after the first few interactions I had the horrendous realisation that the designers intended to keep this up for the ENTIRE GAME. I wonder whether at any point, as the script writers were struggling to come up with yet another rhyme for an awkward word, they said to the person next to them: “Hey, maybe this rhyming thing was a bad idea? Maybe we should just, you know, stop?”

This was probably met with the rejoinder: “NO PHILIP! We’ve come so far, we can’t possibly stop now! I’M GOING TO SEE THIS THING THROUGH TO THE BITTER END, SO HELP ME GOD. Now, what’s a rhyme for ‘attack phase’?”

The game is also a little bit on the short side – roughly 10 hours or so. Reading online, this seems to have annoyed people who picked up the game for full price at launch, but as far as I’m concerned, the shorter the better. My precious gaming time is at a premium these days. (And it helps that I bought it on sale.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some woodland creatures to level up.

Buy Child of Light on Amazon and we get a little cash. Ta!

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From The Armchair: Platformer Purge

ArmchairAfter realising the other week that actually I don’t really like 2D platformers very much, no matter their illustrious provenance, I decided it would be a good time to have a bit of a clear out of the games cupboard… ahem, I mean The Mantelpiece.

First for the eBay pile was New Super Mario Bros. U, a game that I feel like I should really love, but that in fact elicits little more than a shoulder shrug on the few occasions I play it. I bought it on launch day at the same time I got my Wii U, and I wasn’t that impressed then – three and a half years on, I’ve barely gone back to it, and my opinion hasn’t changed. As I said in my post the other day, it just feels like the 2D platformer has been done to death, and it has to take a really novel idea to get me interested in playing through another one. (Interestingly though, I loved Super Mario 3D World and the Galaxy games – clearly my platformer apathy is confined to two dimensions.)

While I was feeling ruthless, I decided to get rid of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U as well. I had a blast with the game when it first arrived back in December 2014, but I haven’t been back to it since then, except for taking it along to Ian’s stag do last year, where it went down like a lead balloon as everyone tried to work out what the hell was going on. I think the Smash Bros. games tend to appeal more to people who’ve grown up playing them against mates and tend to play that way now – I, on the other hand, only played my first Smash Bros. game as an adult (all my mates were into Street Fighter II back in the day), and the few times I’ve tried to introduce people to the game have met with disaster.

Which one am I again?

Which one am I again?

It’s got me wondering whether the Smash games are actually any good. I enjoyed my brief time with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, but I realised that was mostly for nostalgia reasons, as I gathered trophies of gaming heroes from my childhood and played through levels from my favourite SNES games. In terms of the actual gameplay though… well, it all feels a bit floaty, confusing, repetitive and, above all, unfair. In multiplayer there’s just so much happening on screen at one time that it can be difficult to even pick out your character, so it’s no wonder that my friends were left confused. Whereas SFII offers tense, constricted matches that come down to split-second skill, Smash Bros. just seems to be free-floating chaos.

Admittedly, I am quite shit at it. But I also don’t have the patience or interest to put in the hours to get good. And while writing this, I’ve just realised that I get far more excited about the Smash Bros. amiibo than the game itself.

Anyway, while we’re here, I might as well mention a few more games that I’ve given up on after realising that I don’t actually like them very much. Kirby’s Adventure on the Wii U Virtual Console is naturally top of the list, for obvious reasons, i.e.: 2D PLATFORMER = NOT THAT BOTHERED. I’m also tempted to give up on Child of Light, which I picked up in the eShop anniversary sale just a couple of weeks ago. Despite my known apathy towards 2D platforming, I thought I’d give the game a go because it looks so gosh darn beautiful – and because technically you’re flying so it’s not really a platformer. But after just half an hour I could feel my willingness to play gradually slip away as the same old platforms and puzzles reared their ugly heads…

But... But it's so pretty!

But… But it’s so pretty!

Aero Porter is a fun little 3DS puzzler that has you sorting out airport baggage carousels, of all things. It starts off brilliantly, and I found myself drawn in as the puzzling gets more and more complex. But I hit a massive wall several levels in, when suddenly it got excruciatingly hard and I just couldn’t get any further. Shame really, it’s a really neat idea for a game, but the difficulty curve needs some serious tweaking.

NES Remix is a fantastic idea for a game, and I’ve had hours of fun playing through snippets of 8-bit classics. Most of these games would be an utter chore to play through on their own, but in 10-second chunks they are wonderfully addictive. Having said that, Mario Bros. is still utterly awful, and is far surpassed by Super Mario Bros. – I’m sure the only reason it appears in this compilation is because of the name, as even 10 seconds of it is 10 seconds too much. NES Remix 2 is just as good as the first game, but I’ve pretty much run out of steam with both of them now – now hurry up and do a SNES Remix, Nintendo.

Scenes like this are what make NES Remix such great fun.

Scenes like this are what make NES Remix such great fun.

Finally, Swords and Soldiers for Wii U is a conversion of a smartphone game that received glowing reviews on its Wii U debut, but that I’ve struggled to love. The game’s humour is great, and I like the art style, but the gameplay just seems to involve furious tapping and scrolling, and not much in the way of real strategy. It’s not a patch on the wonderful Plants vs. Zombies, for example, and I found my interest waning to zero about a third of the way through.

And on that note, which games have failed to hold your interest for the full furlong?

Ninja monkeys! Oh you guys.

Ninja monkeys! Oh you guys.

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Review: Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water

WiiU_PZMOBW_PS_OuterBox_150805I miss the survival horror genre. Once upon a time, no console worth its salt would be seen dead without a clutch of survival horror titles to its name, but nowadays they’re as rare as praiseworthy tweets about Konami. I remember happily spending hours watching my housemate Ian complete Resident Evil 2 while I was at university – watching, not even playing. That’s probably a good indication of how much of my time was wasted at university, but it’s also a good indicator of how fascinating these games are to watch. It’s the tension that makes it interesting, the dread of being low on ammo and not knowing what lies around the next corner.

After playing through ZombiU – essentially a first-person survival horror game – I realised there’s a massive survival-horror-shaped hole in my life. Since Resident Evil headed off to reinvent itself as a brodude shooter, there’s been a noticeable lack of traditional survival horror games around, so I was suitably excited about the launch of Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water.

From the general buzz about the game, it seems that it’s not the best in the Project Zero series (it’s game number five), but it was the first Project Zero game I’ve played and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. At first, anyway. But more on that in a minute.

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For a start, the graphics are superb – I loved the beautifully drawn backgrounds, featuring suitably grotty and dank Japanese shrines, and the character models are superb. Plus the plot is brilliantly eerie – the full horror that’s been unfolding on the mountain is revealed slowly, with many a gruesome turn. Sadly, the dialogue is very much in keeping with that of traditional survival horror games – i.e. it’s not very good. We don’t quite reach the ‘Jill sandwich’ level, but the option to switch from English audio to Japanese was a welcome one.

The start of the game is excellently scary, as all sorts of horrid-looking ghosts leap out on you from all angles while you do your best to bat them away. But unfortunately we end up seeing the same old spirits a bit too often, and they gradually lose their power to scare as you encounter them again and again. Not only that, it’s pretty easy to avoid their attacks once you’ve mastered the ‘dodge’ button, so by the end, each encounter felt more like a slow dance than a battle to the death. The sheer number of shots needed to down a ghost is also a bit of a bind – it strikes me that a much better idea would be to have much quicker, deadlier ghosts that only need one shot to ‘kill’. This would have made for a much more tense game, forcing you to be wary as you explore but also quick off the draw.

Repetition is what sucks the life out of the game in the end. For example, there’s a great sequence where you flick between security cameras to keep an eye on your slumbering companions and then head off to attack any ghosts that show up (complete with scary static and ghosts suddenly appearing in front of the camera). But later on this idea is recycled again almost verbatim, which rather takes the shine off the concept.

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Similarly, there’s rampant reuse of locations – we’re not quite talking the police station in Resident Evil 2 here, but it does begin to get a little wearisome towards the end when you’re stumbling through the same old places. More importantly, the reasons for revisiting the mountain begin to border on the absurd. The three main characters all have to venture onto the peak to rescue (and sometimes re-rescue) various people as the game goes on, and by about the sixth time they’ve been up and down the mountain it starts to get a bit ludicrous. Rather than all staying up there until their business is done, they keep jogging back home for a snooze at the end of each episode. And then the next morning they head back under some flimsy pretext, despite having encountered dozens of horrific, blood-sucking ghosts the day before. Either the characters are all eternal optimists or they’re enormous gluttons for punishment – it would make more sense if there was some sort of evil force that trapped them on the mountain.

I enjoyed the game whole-heartedly until about two-thirds of the way through, but by that point the repetition became a bit wearing – and the extra mission at the end featuring Ayane from Dead or Alive was pointless fluff. There’s a great game here, but it’s stretched a bit too thin – it’s still good, but if it was half the length it would have been far punchier and more memorable.

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The Project Zero 5 verdict: it’s good

After spending a few incredibly creepy hours with Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water for Wii U, I can safely say that it’s thoroughly enjoyable and incredibly creepy. Especially when playing it on your own with the lights down.

The game arrived on Friday, complete with lots of lovely gear, and I managed to get in a decent playing session last night – then attempted to get to sleep with thoughts of child ghosts leaping out on me from a haunted wood. Child ghosts are just the worst, aren’t they?

Spot the child ghost. Brrrrrrr.....

Spot the child ghost. Brrrrrrr…..

The game has reviewed widely varying review scores, with much of the negative criticism centring on how the game is too similar to its predecessors and lacking in innovation. But seeing as this is the first Project Zero game I’ve played, those criticisms barely apply in my case. It was actually quite refreshing to go back to old-school survival horror.

And the controls are definitely old school – although the movement doesn’t feature Resident Evil‘s infamous ‘tank’ controls, moving your character around is just as clunky. There’s a considerable delay between pressing down to turn your character around and them actually completing the action – the people in this game all appear to be wading through treacle. Likewise, the ‘run’ is barely a trot.

But all of this just adds to the atmosphere as far as I’m concerned – in survival horror games like this, wrestling with the controls is just part of the appeal. There’s nothing like being attacked by several ghosts at once and whipping the Camera Obscura out in a panicked attempt to fight them off – but instead looking at the floor and spinning around wildly while desperately trying to get the enemies in your viewfinder. The controls are intentionally difficult – the game wants you to fail. But importantly, it’s not impossible. I’m already getting better with practice, even though most of my attempts to fend off ghosts are more flailing than finessed.

I like the way the game does things slowly – it’s all about slow build-ups, eerie walks through darkened forests and impending dread as you shuffle down creaking corridors. Even picking up objects takes an age as you reach down slowly to grab the item, and sometimes a ghost hand will shoot out to get you instead. It’s a cheap scare, but effective.

And speaking of cheap scares, the game made me jump numerous times thanks to ghosts variously leaping out of cupboards or popping up behind me, although one of the most effective moments wasn’t a jump scare at all. As I was crawling down a collapsed corridor, I suddenly noticed a pair of ghostly feet dangling above me, as if they belonged to a man hanging from a noose. I quickly stood up and looked around, but there was nothing there. And nothing appeared there again, no matter how many times I went back… making me wonder whether I’d imagined the whole thing. Brrr.

I can’t wait to dive back in and see what else the game has to offer!

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