Blood Will Tell, or: Enough experimentation, already

Hyakki & DororoFor what hopefully represents the last of my experimental purchases for a long, long while to come, I picked up a copy of Sega’s rather obscure PS2 slash-em-up Blood Will Tell. duckroll ordered a copy during Play-Asia’s February sale, and delivered me enough good impressions about it that I decided to try it out. I’d ignored the game since its announcement circa E3 2004, having passed it off as “just another slashing game.” Upon trying the game, I find that my early snap judgment was…not too far off, really.

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Simple 2000 Series vol. 90: The Oneechanbara 2

Aya, Saki, and mystery-girlMy copy of Oneechanbara 2 arrived the day before yesterday. I’ve only played it briefly, but enough to give some impressions. Really, it’s the same thing as the first game, but better-executed.

It looks and feels much, much better. Like Oneechanbara, most of the effort was clearly spent on making the characters appealing and fun to play. There are now three attack types: sword, hand-to-hand, and an alternate attack that varies from character to character. Aya (the one in bikini and cowboy hat) throws shuriken, her younger sister Saki dashes up to zombies and can pull off body parts, and the mysterious new biker has an old-fashioned shotgun that can be fired in any cardinal direction. Holding different directions modifies attacks: for example, holding back and hitting kick does a sweep, while holding forward and hitting kick with Aya makes her do a roundhouse kick that sends enemies flying. The different attack types can be comboed into one another, and it’s easy to get a feel for which attacks are good for starting or chaining and which are finishers. The combo system feels robust enough that it should be fun to try for high hit and kill counts, though I’m not very skilled with it yet.

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No complaints here: Double Dragon Advance

I’ve finally managed to put some time in with Double Dragon Advance, after finding myself impressed with it on release and tracking it down two years later. I do believe I’ve found in it one of my favorite beat ‘em ups ever, and a game that remedies most of the problems common in its genre.

The bulk of my experience with the Double Dragon series was with the PC port of Double Dragon II. That version of the game was not without its problems, especially on an XT-class 8088, but I still had a lot of fun in its two-player mode with my dad. When I saw the iron-masked first-stage boss from DD2 in DDA, my nostalgia overtook me and I knew I had to give it a try.

The first thing about the game that caught my eye was the way enemies can be stunned and then dealt with in a variety of ways. Two punches, a kick, or a weapon attack will cause an enemy to momentarily freeze in a hunched-over pose. The player can then execute one of a few specific attacks, like a throw, a grab and hit, or a special kick. This sort of freedom from the usual 3-hit combo isn’t something I’ve seen too often in the genre (if at all), so I thought it might have been a new addition to the series. However, when I went back and tried the original arcade DD, I noticed that there’s a similar mechanic at work. The stun window isn’t nearly as big, and it’s not as visible, but it works similarly in practice. Of course, the original doesn’t allow for nearly as many attack options, nor is it as easy to consistently carry off the moves you want.

Where DDA really shines is in its variety of moves and its polished fighting mechanics. It integrates all the moves you could do in DD1 and 2, along with new moves, like an uppercut and a kick you can do from a crouch, and a dash that you can punch or kick from. You can also now hit enemies while they’re on the cround. You can straddle an enemy’s chest and punch him repeatedly, UFC-style, or do a Virtua Fighter-style flying stomp attack. All the moves feel well-tuned and are fun to use, and mastery of them is what the game seems to be all about. I’m not too hot at the game yet (I can barely make the second or third stage on a credit), but I would imagine that a one-credit clear would involve proper crowd management and use of moves in favor of memorizing enemy positions (Final Fight-style). This game feels like it’s meant to be mastered and one-credited, not like something that’s meant to simply take your money.

The game’s structure takes levels from DD1, redrawn and recolored, and throws in levels that I believe are from Super Double Dragon. Enemies from both DD1 and DD2 are present here, as well as music from both games. All of the sprites have been redrawn and are better-animated now, and little things like movement speed and frame timing and how a kick or punch feel are better-tuned here than in any previous DD game. There’s none of the series’ frequent slowdown here. Billy and Jimmy now resemble Bruce Lee more than ever, and have several new animations in which they affect Lee-style poses. I get the feeling that the original creators took a second look at their early efforts and decided to re-tune the whole package with an additional fifteen-plus years of experience behind them. They knew well enough to improve what they had by including only elements that would complement their existing foundation. Some of the reviews I’ve read criticized the game a bit for not including concessions to more modern design (like unlockables, maybe?), but I found this refreshing. This is how remakes should be done.

Final thoughts on Gothic

the northern (barrier) lightsFinished up Gothic today, with about 23 hours on the game clock (and at least a third again as much spent on retries). My initial impressions of it were pretty misleading, as right after the long and completely nonlinear first chapter, the game’s structure becomes completely linear. After that point the game is still strung together via NPC conversations, but 90% of the conversations from that point on are there purely to advance the game’s plot in a single direction. The player can still travel anywhere on the map (provided he’s strong enough to get past ‘gatekeeper’ monsters placed at specific points here and there) and discover hidden areas, but most of the time outside of towns in Chapter 2 and onward is spent either in dungeons or travelling between quest nodes.

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Resident Evil 4 – impressions from around the nine-hour mark

don't call us zombiesI purchased Resident Evil 4 at the same time as Kessen III (yay for tiny windfalls) and I’ve been playing that steadily since. I haven’t paid attention to the multipage official threads for the game on the usual forums, but I did catch wind of lots of talk about it being “revolutionary” and so on. Compared to the rest of the series and with the game’s current peers, it seems more to me that RE has finally caught up with the times, and is much better off for it.

The play experience reminds me of RE2 (I’ve previously played PC RE1 and N64 RE2, with those nice absolute controls) and has the same sort of slightly puzzle-ish gameflow, but everything is much more fleshed-out and the controls are much more transparent and nice to deal with. The biggest and most important changes I can see in the game’s minute-to-minute operation, aside from the obvious perspective change, are the way item interaction is handled, the new pseudo-first-person weapon-aiming, and the way the game has been broken out of its predecessors’ scripted, linear framework.

One of the things that constantly pulled me out of the experience in previous RE games was the “button-mash drag” – pushing up against a surface and running along it while pressing the action button repeatedly in order to try to find hidden items. This doesn’t exist in RE4, partly because the perspective allows the player more granular control over his or her actions, and mostly because there are many more visual clues as to the locations of items now. The most obvious one is that when an enemy drops an item, it’s surrounded by a vertical beam of light, marking its position and type (whitish beam for treasures, yellowish beam for ammunition). In addition, many items are now found in breakable boxes and barrels, and each of these seems to be “made” from the same unstained pine, which makes recognition easy. There are still items hidden in cabinets, lockers, and so on, but these are easier to recognize than ever: when you see one of them, you’ll know you can open it and you’ll feel the need to do so immediately.

RE has used an R-trigger to aim and a face button to fire since the beginning of the series, but the way it’s set up now feels very much like the first-person aiming in Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3. The new viewpoint turns an element of guesswork in previous games (hoping your gun is locked onto the right zombie, hoping the up-aiming you’re doing will hit its head) into an element of skill that adds a lot of visceral fun to the game. Damage-mapping is very well-done; besides the classic headshot you can shoot an enemy in the leg to make him trip and fall, shoot him in the arm to disarm him, or go for the vitals shot that can kill straightaway with some weapons (something that doesn’t happen very often with MGS’s armor-wearing generic troopers). It adds a nice dynamic element to a series whose action has often felt very canned and limited.

What also contributes to this is the way many of RE4′s setpieces are constructed so that they can play out in many different ways, depending on the player’s inclination and ingenuity. For example, in the first village areas, the player can stick to the back alleys and take out attackers one by one (as I did – I wasn’t thinking very far beyond “shoot, shoot, shoot”) – or can hole up on the second floor of one of the ramshackle homes, Night of the Living Dead-style. This is another similar approach to what was taken with MGS3 – while the game still progresses in an overall linear fashion, individual situations can play out nonlinearly and can be different on each playthrough. The cinematic nature of the game has been preserved in spades, but the fact that they’ve maintained that while providing so much more to do, see, find, and interact with (along with the strides made with MGS3) gives me great hope for these cinematic genres that were previously so aggressively noninteractive.

And while RE4 is not a difficult game by any stretch of the term, I do look forward to trying out the hidden, arcadey Mercenaries game and to trying the game proper on higher difficulties. I think the mechanics are strong enough that if the game was to demand more skill and performance out of me, I would enjoy the game just that much more.

On a side note: I don’t know if it’s just because I don’t play very many explicitly violent games, but RE4′s graphic deaths are often pretty disturbing to me. I’ve hardly seen violence like that portrayed so realistically in a game, and the effect is possibly even more convincing than movie gore, as the techniques used to portray the violence and death are consistent with the rest of the game’s engine. So much for that desensitization the media says we’re all going through, I guess!