Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reflections: Bayonetta

Have you ever desired to play a game that changed your controller into a vessel for an all-you-can-kill death buffet?? How about a game that combined silky smooth handling with relentless, ruthless battles, in which your success depended upon not only your reflexes, but also your skill?? Have you ever wanted to see a woman whose ridiculous, overt sexual appeal made Barbie look like a 10th century midwife?? How do you feel about seeing that same woman engage in breakdance while blasting baddies with ankle-mounted shotguns, only to pose for a snapshot before she finishes them off with a guillotine?? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, Bayonetta may be for you; if you affirmed all of them, go play it now!!

Bayonetta is, without a doubt, one of the best action-brawler games on the market. Strictly speaking about gameplay, little of this game goes astray. Any fan of games like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden will feel right at home with Bayonetta. This witch delivers fast, frantic gameplay that is very challenging, especially because of its introduction of, and emphasis upon a few unique mechanics. Even though Bayonetta will hold a very steep learning curve for newcomers to the action-brawler genre, most everyone will find a solid challenge. However, with all that can be said about it for its vigor and creativity, not everyone will fall in love with this witch; from its off-the-wall narrative to the absolutely crazy battle presentation, it will sadly fall to a niche market.

This game absolutely reeks of style; Baynetta’s strut, attacks, shadow, enemies, friends, cutscenes, upgrades, and power attacks all drip with a cutting creativity. I feel as though all the folks at PlatinumGames sat down and brainstormed all the things that would be cool to do in an action videogame, and then chose to incorporate all of these things. The magic is that Bayonetta’s amplified-fantasy context allows all of these indulgences to feel natural, rather than forced. The brilliant medium that allows all this imagination to flow uninhibited is her hair. Yes, that’s right – Bayonetta’s hair is a conduit for her magic, allowing her own body to assume the form of a malicious parrot-demon, a huge high-heeled foot that stomps down with great force, or a medieval guillotine. Whatever Bayonetta needs, she provides for herself with often humorous results; I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud or shouted cheers so often while witnessing the demise of an enemy.

Cockteasing... now a new subgenre.

Platinum introduced us to Witch Time; the heir-apparent to bullet-time, except that the protagonist stays in full-speed motion while all the surrounding enemies slow down. While slow-mo game mechanics can feel unnatural or cliché if implemented poorly, one can only activate Witch Time after an exploit of skill. Rather than restricting slow-mo to a rechargeable or regenerative meter, it is activated in short intervals upon the player successfully dodging danger. The dodge button rests comfortably under the right index finger, and it is the only way to engage Witch Time. For example, a player laying into a baddie with one of Bayonetta’s often-long combos, if the enemy raises his axe to slash the player, he can press the dodge button right before the moment of impact and trigger a few seconds of Witch Time whoop-ass. It takes careful timing and is very dangerous, but is much more rewarding than what some similar games encourage, such as staying out of danger until the “special mode” meter fills back up. Being encouraged to jump right into the danger really keeps the battle pace exciting.

Bayonetta has her own version of special attacks as well. Dubbed “Torture Attacks,” these brief, but ridiculous, scripted sequences are contingent upon the player filling up the creatively-named “Magic Gauge” to one full sequence. The Magic Gauge is divided into eight circles, and said circles are filled by distributing pain. Appropriately, connecting more powerful attacks fill the gauge faster. Once all eight circles are gleaming bright, a simple button combination engages one of the many out-of-control Torture Attacks available, depending on which type of enemy is chosen as a victim. The stipulation about Torture Attacks that prevent them from being a cheap tactic is that once the player is struck, much of the Magic Gauge depletes. As the game progresses, the option exists to upgrade the number of circles in the Magic Gauge, which provides some leniency as the battles escalate in intensity, because Torture Attacks always require eight circles to activate.

The game plays a very effective game of risk vs. reward with the player. Filling up the Magic Gauge is a great way to distribute serious damage, especially to more dangerous and elusive foes. Witch Time is the most efficient and safest way to quickly fill the Magic Gauge, and is an effective means of laying down some hurt in its own right. Even with all these destructive tools at the players’ disposal, the only real way to power them up is to jump into the action and bring the fight, which makes for a fast-paced, multi-faceted game that rewards planning as well as skill and reflex.

Another new card brought to the table by Bayonetta is to have one weapon equipped to the hands, and another equipped to the feet - yes, the feet. While most weapons can be equipped to the hands, most of the downstairs potential rests with mounting ranged weapons. Two sets of weapons can be arranged via the start menu, and the left trigger button issues a weapon-set swap. This allows for four different weapons to be instantly available to the player with a simple button-tap, which allows for some surprising versatility, and projectile weapons are activated by simply holding in the punch or kick buttons for just a split second. With one weapon set, I am able to charge into an enemy with a pair of giant claws, and once they are knocked back I unleash a barrage from the ankle-mounted pistols. With one touch of a button, I’ve swiftly switched to the alternative weapon set, and am unleashing quadruple shotgun devastation, with one set on the hands and another set on the feet. Even if the situation calls for a weapon outside of the four that are immediately available, the start menu loads quickly and is simple to navigate.

The loading screen allows players to experiment with different weapon combinations.

A good variety of weapons are available, and mixing-and-matching is encouraged to best suit both a player’s preferred style of play as well as situation-specific encounters with foes. While the weapons aren’t upgradeable, a good selection is available from the game’s store. Most of the weapons vary in speed and range, which gives them all a very unique feel and prevents the game from feeling homogenized. Some models of foe drop their own weapons, and while they all break very quickly, they all offer some generous damage-dealing capabilities and help keep the gameplay varied.

The game store offers a good variety of upgrades, as well as new weapons. Run-of-the-mill items like those that restore health and magic are included, but the other items range from mundane to killer, and can really change the player’s approach to a particularly challenging portion of the game.

If you haven’t yet deduced, Bayonetta hardly takes itself seriously. The game benefits all the more from this creatively directive choice, as some of the most imaginative sequences in the game don’t feel forced or strained; the canon will permit just about anything to happen. However, what is present of a narrative certainly does not benefit from the jovial tone of the game. The cutscenes carry a surprisingly serious tone, which makes for an unwelcome change of pace after I just finished killing hordes of angels with a shot-gun themed breakdance and an iron maiden.

The story that is present is decent, if bizarre, and is well-presented by both cutscenes and a creative sort of film-drawn comic book, but is really restrained by the tone that the game sets outside of the cutscenes. The lore is fleshed-out and elaborated upon by a variety of in-game documents that can be discovered while exploring the levels, but isn’t required reading by any means, and further understanding of the Umbra Witches and Lumen Sages hardly benefits the experience from beginning to end.

Puzzles and platforming range from obvious to infuriating. Implementation of Witch Time into the puzzles only mandates the use of reflexes in activation. Beyond manipulating time to traverse certain obstacles, standard item placement and activation of switches constitute the puzzles. Nothing profound, but as an action game the puzzles only exist as a slight change of pace. No puzzle is particularly complex.

Platforming is a mixed bag. Certain elements such as changing gravitational orientation, and transforming into a beast to run with great speed work very well and are welcome distractions from battling. Much to my dismay, however, the latter half of the game often includes jumping and running around on light-platforms which don’t display the player’s shadow. Such an exclusion really messes with depth perception, and often results in trials of tedium rather than of timing and coordination.

The boss battles of Bayonetta are simply pristine. High-quality boss battles occur every few levels. All of them are grand in scope, and feature unique mediums ranging from the middle of the ocean to an ancient coliseum. A great blend of all-out hacking to dodging and running are present, much like a Zelda-style boss battle at double speed. The demise of every boss is outrageous and hilarious.

The best boss battles of 2010, no contest.

To wrap up, Bayonetta is an excellent action game, and sets a new bar for excitement. Honestly, it’s hard to go back to playing older action games after experiencing 20 hours of this smooth action, despite some minor platforming-related annoyances. The tone of the game is fun, and is a welcome change of pace from the all-too-common “serious” games on the market. Sadly, only a very open-minded gamer is going to get past the outrageous protagonist and insane style to be able to dive into the juicy gameplay. An oversexualized female protagonist aimed at male audiences is just too much of an aesthetic boundary for many to clear.

Bayonetta gets a B lettergrade.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Revitalizing Ninja Gaiden

There's some buzz about in the vid game community these days about Ninja Gaiden 3 taking a new direction for the franchise. While many franchises seem to be undergoing some degree of a facelift (Halo: Reach, Zelda: Wind Waker, Resident Evil 4, Ratchet: Deadlocked, GTA4, etc.) in the past few years, this is hardly a surprise. (Personally, I'd rather see big stylistic changes introduced as an entirely new franchise, but hey! apparently there's less money in that) As a big fan of the franchise, I have mixed emotions about the news.

Dramatic changes in gameplay and/or style may accompany a solid game, but often lose some of the aesthetic with which the original drew us in. The best example of a franchise being reinvented to critical and commercial success is Resident Evil 4; so much of this game was pristine and polished, and it played like a gamer's fantasy come true. For all that can be said of its greatness, it was hardly reminiscent of the original titles. Granted, the radius-based control scheme with fixed camera angles was getting outdated, but it took a giant leap from slow, suspenseful horror all the way to heart-pounding, adrenaline-inducing third-person shooter. From the game's release six years ago to this day I stand my ground in my opinion that Resident Evil 4 and, subsequently, Resident Evil 5, ought to have been released under a new franchise license. The only bit carrying over from the original titles are characters (and I gotta say, Wesker's presence in Resident Evil 5 felt forced).

Don't get me wrong, Resident Evil 4 was a great game, and having played it recently I can testify that it even ages quite well. Resident Evil 5 is great fun as well, but I must say that it carries the franchise's name like a heavy burden. I am concerned that the same fate will befall Ninja Gaiden 3, and certain mainstays and franchise identity may hinder what could otherwise be engaging gameplay. Both Ninja Gaiden games were fast and fluid, which is certainly appropriate, seeing as how the premise of the game is assuming control of a suave, highly-trained ninja.

Team Ninja has said cited a handful of changes that will separate NG3 from its predecessors, and the one that most intrigues me is that it is Ryu's origin story. This is a logical premise to tone down Ryu's hyper-homicidal fighting style in favor of a style that feels more deliberate and cautionary, as well as requiring a bit more care and calculation.

Elaborating on the new fighting style which will let me "experience what it's like to cut through bones," I question the choice to remain under the "Ninja Gaiden" franchise if the gameplay is to be altered such a degree as what I am imagining. I'm picturing in my mind a third-person action game in which every kill feels like a victory, rather than a step toward the larger victory at hand. Every encounter with the opposition is a critically important scenario. Even a single enemy on equal footing can induce great harm and death to the player if they are not careful, and in that way the game feels more like the survival mode from Dead or Alive 4 rather than Dynasty Warriors.

Don't get me wrong, the thought of fighting for my life in a series one-on-one encounters and panic-inducing skirmishes with small groups of rival ninjas tickles me quite pink; but it's not Ninja Gaiden. Ryu Hayabusa doesn't get hung up on which way to attack a group of enemies - as gamers, Ryu Hayabusa empowers us to wall-jump into a group of baddies while severing five different sets of legs, right before effortlessly sending the lot of them to an early grave looking like a high-school student's anatomy kit. Ryu, rather than being frightened by another man with a sword, will cut off an arm, blast him into the air, and then super-piledrive him into the pavement - head first. If I'm playing a game that makes common enemies stand before me as legitimate threats, I don't want to be playing as Ryu Hayabusa, for he is the Chuck Norris of video games.

The original XBox's Ninja Gaiden was best embodiment of all things ninja that the industry has ever seen (although PS2's Shinobi was pretty bad-ass). Ryu is a sleek, smooth killer and doesn't falter even at the most dangerous of foes. Killing clans of horrible beasts and hordes of otherworldly demons as Ryu Hayabusa is simply a matter of reflexes and timing. The sequel, while overdelivering on the thrills and consequently made Ryu feel more like a superhero than a skilled fighter, still handed the player immense satisfaction after laying out hundreds of dismembered bodies. While I fully advocate the production and development of a game that puts the player in the shoes of an inexperienced assassin, that game is better invented as an entirely new franchise. As a different franchise, none of the wild acrobatics of Ninja Gaiden will be required to make it stay true to name, nor will any of the insane kill counts; Team Ninja will be free to give the main character as many imperfections and deficiencies that are needed to depict him as a novice in his art, with respect to both character and gameplay. Additionally, a mature, coherent story is better suited to a different franchise. If a meaningful narrative is to be written, it can only be justified under a new name.

After all, Ryu Haybusa IS THE GUY who, no matter how nervous he was when he began, will still be the guy who killed an underwater ghost dragon and three gigantic, flaming armadillos.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Life After Achievements

Last week, I knew that I finally overcame my addiction to Xbox Achievements. Achievements, which have often been the object of my scorn, have still managed to invade hours and hours of my gaming time – until now. I have often complained about their frivolous nature, citing both that they often diminish enjoyment of a game when sought, and also that they offer no tangible reward. However, no matter how much I had to say about how they offer nothing substantial to the gaming community, I still always found myself browsing my gamer profile on Xbox Live, and setting aside blocks of time to complete many of their challenges.
I am proud to say that I’m finally over Achievements, and they hold no bearing over my gaming-related pursuits. Last week, I was playing Halo: Reach online with some friends, and I unlocked an achievement. Having raided the “big tower” on the Ascension remake in a game of team Slayer, and put two of my opponents out of their misery, the addictive “bloop” cued and the notification popped up on the bottom of my screen, but something was amiss this time: the Achievement was unfamiliar, and I had no idea what it pertained to. Being in the heat of battle, I waited until the end of the game to check out the description.

“Both Barrels: Noble 1: Earned a Double Kill with the shotgun in multiplayer Matchmaking”

The anomaly of the situation immediately stood out to me, as I have been a scavenger for achievements for about three years, but over the next few days it really sunk in that I no longer care for achievements or Gamerscore. “Both Barrels” may have been the first achievement I’ve ever unlocked that, when the notification popped up, I had no clue as to the description of it. The unlock date is January 5th, 2011, and the Noble Map Pack, and the accompanying new achievements, have been available since mid-November. This implies that I played Xbox for a solid month and a half and didn’t browse my achievement catalog, nor did I check out the new achievements when I played Reach between the time of the map pack’s release and the fifth of January.
It may sound odd, as most addictions require conscious and significant efforts, but kicking Achievements came upon me unwittingly. I have done some reflecting on the feelings that have accompanied this period that has been free of Achievement-related urges.
Playing Nintendo DS has been awesome. Pokémon, The World Ends With You, Kirby’s Canvas Curse, Super Mario Brothers, Metroid Zero Mission... my handheld gaming passion is back in full-swing. Sad as it may seem, one of the reasons that I completely ceased playing DS is because I was always thinking, “This isn’t doing anything for my gamerscore,” and then I would quit playing the game because the challenges I was completing were not being catalogued in my record of video-game related conquests, the Gamerscore. I remember playing Link to the Past on Game Boy Advance and trudging through it as though it were an obligation rather than a privilege, simply because my Gamerscore would remain the same throughout the adventure.
As fun as DS games were, and as often as I would see DS reviews and previews online and think, “I’d sure love to try that game out,” I would often pass the DS shelves in stores without making any considerations as to when I would purchase and/or play them. Those days are over, and I’m 45 hours deep in Pokémon Pearl and totally enamored with The World Ends With You. I take my DS onto campus every day, and often play in between classes.
Playing games on my friends’ consoles is also less like pulling teeth, and more like it was before this generation of consoles. I am very much more likely to agree to play on a friend’s system without insisting on playing on my system, under my own profile. Playing Super Smash Brothers with my friends is fun and competitive like it always has been, and always should be.
Also, at the end of Christmas break, upon my return to school I purchased a Wii, along with Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and MadWorld; both of which are games I have long wanted to play. I just finished the second full dungeon, and never passed a thought of my neglected Xbox Gamerscore.
I have blogged about Achievements, Trophies, and their influence on gaming choices, how they affect play time, the industry and gaming culture at large. Achievements are stand-ins for cool content that could be unlocked for skilled and dedicated players, and they are also the nicotine in the veins of a gamer that keeps us coming back again and again to boost the arbitrary number representing our Gamerscore.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Why So Zombie All of a Sudden??

I feel like zombies have been escalating in popularity in recent years, with our undead infatuation reaching an all-time high during 2010. Video games have seen a recent explosion in zombie population, with bundles of additional brain-munching content released for everything from the western-themed action game Red Dead Redemption to arcade beat-em-up Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Television and film have recently seen an undead uprising of sorts, and most of it has been well-received by the general public; popular mini-series Walking Dead basically came out of nowhere and lured millions of Americans to their TV sets every week, and Romero’s “of the Dead” series has seen a new release as well as several imitators. As a long-time gamer and fan of science fiction, I have noticed this sudden escalation in the marketability of reanimated corpses and I’m prompted to wonder: why is now the time for zombies to invade our media and literature? What constituents of human psyche incline us to fall in love with hating the undead? Why are those who are typically avert to horror and science fiction suddenly buying in like the nerd kingdom has been for decades? Let's explore a few possibilities...

The theme of good vs. evil is common themes in literature, films, and gaming alike, and there is a reason for this: everybody loves it. Popular book series like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, countless successful films, and just about all video games feature (or attempt to feature) protagonists with whom we can relate conquering a clearly-defined and unambiguous evil force. The nature of a zombie is an animal and vile character, one who isn’t responsible for his own conduct. A zombie is a model of the behavior that follows the lifestyle whose only urges and inclinations spawn from primal instinct. A zombie is human only in physiology; in psychology it is an animal. An animal whose sole drive is to prey upon our kind, our race, our friends and families must be evil, as their existence directly relates to our demise. With such a clear-cut conflict of interests at hand, no ambiguity is present to smear the boundaries of morality. Reality rarely hands us a situation in which the decision-making process is so simple, so we love zombies because so little deliberation is involved in choosing one’s alliance. Americans are faced with an unpopular war in Afghanistan and Iraq every time we read the paper or watch the news, every voting year politicians appeal to us on very confounding issues like abortion, gay marriage, and death penalty. The ability to participate in fighting off a ravenous zombie horde in a video game is a welcome and mentally relaxing break from confronting issues that plague our news outlets with moral dilemmas and a lack of resolve.

Another popular theme in storytelling is the conquering of great obstacles. Popular films and video games often feature a lone hero or a small group of protagonists fighting a losing battle against a foe whose alliance and resources far outnumber those of our hero. We connect with these themes as a race because everybody is fighting an uphill battle in their life; no matter the age or the circumstance. From paying bills and feeding children to making tryouts and passing exams, everybody struggles. Zombies, when they invade, may start out small in number but eventually grow to greatly outnumber those whose minds are still their own. Whether the cause is a ravenous contagion or a necromancer’s influence, zombies are always present in high quantities. An infinite horde of zombies in a work of fiction is a superb stand-in for the infinite pressure of reality, and the capacity to witness or participate in the defeat, or at least management, such an intimidating threat delivers some satisfaction and hope that relates to our own lives.

Fighting and killing is an innate part of human nature. The rampant success of violence in all forms of media exemplifies, if not proves, this point. Violence is a rarity in the day-to-day activities of the working class just about anywhere one could inquire to look. The lack of violence in our lives means that our innermost urges for bloodlust go unsatisfied, as our meat is purchased at a store and not hunted down, national defense institutions replace the need for self-defense, and rivalries are settled with competitions of wit and skill, rather than strength and sleight of hand. An important remark is that the fantastical killing of humans carries much different implications than the fantastical killing of animals, aliens, and other non-humanoid creations. For two instances, the Call of Duty video game franchise is very appealing to the consumer at large because the antagonists are human figures, not aliens or mutants, and additionally, the vast majority of action movies pit a human antagonist against a human protagonist. When a zombie is an antagonist in a plot, it carries the dissociation of an animal that allows us to witness its destruction with little or no conscientious objection, while retaining the humanoid familiarity that permits a satisfaction of primal inclinations. Mowing down rows upon rows of zombies in Valve’s Left for Dead games, or watching mountains of limbs and gore pile up in a round of Call of Duty’s zombie-themed game mode quenches our thirst for blood. Guilt takes a day off from the human heart while we deter waves of zombies because zombies do not suffer as we do; zombies have no feelings, no shame, no regret, and no sense of loss or abandonment. This is to say that, although zombies share a great many resemblances to us, we have no capacity to feel compassion and pity for them as we witness their dismemberment.

Science fiction’s appeal is in its first word: science. Works of science fiction are commonly based on real speculations and theories. From what I've seen and read in modern sci-fi,a common vector to incur zombification is a virus; a big wad of DNA and protein that replicates using host mechanisms, and then spreads from the host to other victims and repeats the process. Viruses have been known to cause alternative and inexplicable behaviors in some hosts, though these symptoms are more the exception than the norm. However, from this anomaly stems the speculation: what if?? What if a virus could alter human behavior? Can a person really be behaviorally altered to the point that they would mindlessly and unobjectionably harm those around them, even their loved ones? Capcom’s long-standing Resident Evil franchise and blockbuster movie I Am Legend are just two of the examples of fiction whose plots stem from medical experiments gone awry. The catalyst for the zombification of Resident Evil's Raccoon City is the fictitious T-Virus, while I Am Legend implores the use of the measles virus to cure cancer, and these realistic roots carry dreadful implications that prey upon our fears.

The last of the reasons for the zombie invasion of 2010, but certainly not the least, is buzz. A cult classic like Dawn of the Dead will, as cult classics often do, inspire a handful of imitators. If the formula proves successful and marketable, more producers and directors will follow suit in the hope of making a buck or two. It may have been a slow roll since Night of the Living Dead frightened moviegoers in the 1960’s, but the snowball effect is in full tilt, and shows no signs of losing momentum. Additionally, America’s fascination with other myth creatures opened our minds to unusual mediums of storytelling, specifically the more romantic, but just as fictitious, vampires. Many may hate to face it, but the rampant success of the Twilight series of books and movies, along with their often fanatical preteen demographic, set the stage for this year’s full-scale zombie invasion.

Is America’s reanimated romance a by-product of a pressured populace, feeling the effects of a slow economy? Are our bloodthirsty battlements just a flesh-eating façade for fulfilling fantasies? Is film’s corpse-fueled coup of film and television an indication for injurious infatuation? Perhaps this fermented phenomenon is a combination of all or some parts? Let me know in the comments, or add me as a friend on Facebook!!