Project Minerva

Conventional wisdom states that you need to spend some time with a videogame, really dig in there, in order to review it. Most days I’m with conventional wisdom on that one: just not today. Lately, I played Project Minerva for a few hours, and it committed so many unpardonable sins out of the gate that I was already writing the review in a corner of my mind from the first moments of the game. I couldn’t help it. My brain needed some kind of other stimulus to make the time go by faster, as the heroine plodded, hunched over, across an endless grassy plain.

Before the game has even properly started, an uncanny valley effect hits: in the opening video you’ll notice that the heroine looks much more human than everybody around her. This is a D3 Publisher joint from 2001, early in the PS2’s life. Though D3 had not yet figured out the whole “Simple Series” business that would bring them to success, the production values are certainly on the same level as that series. Bare-minimum character models dance the robot through every animation and cutscene.

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Simple 2000 Series vol. 113: The Tairyou Jigoku

I have to say, this is an excellent coverWhat makes a Simple 2000 release worthwhile? Does the concept need to be original? Does the game have to be “good?” Or simply playable? There are roughly three grades of Simple 2000 games out there: those that are terrible and unplayable, those that are terrible and playable, and those that are not terrible. I had fully expected this game to fall into the first category, but I found something that just barely sneaks into the second.

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Everblue 2

screenshotThe “vacation game” came into its own as a genre beginning around 1999, with it games like the Aquanaut’s Holiday series, Kita he, Boku no Natsuyasumi, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, and others. They are vacations not just because of their generally-idyllic settings and touristy gameplay tasks, but in the way that their gameplay often offers a vacation from other types of games, with simple operation, simple goals, and preferably little irritation to stand in the way. While it may be easy to pass this style off as shallow and slight, it’s refreshing to take a break from memorizing moves and level layouts once in a while.

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Resident Evil 4 wrap-up

adaI finished Resident Evil 4 on Sunday. It was a pretty flat, unmemorable experience for me, for the most part, just because it went so easy on me. The Mercenaries subgame shows just how versatile and developed the mechanics are for skill-based play, but those in charge of the game generally chose not to exercise the mechanics for the bulk of the game. I didn’t start to get a real visceral thrill from the game until the second disc, where enemies’ running speeds pick up and crowd-management tactics become very important.

I generally hated the QTE sequences that interrupted cutscenes, because they feel like a cheap way to add arbitrary difficulty when the player generally doesn’t expect it. They combine the worst of pure trial-and-error play and randomized structure and generally aren’t much fun, I think. The first Krauser battle was the worst example of this. I’m not sure why the creators decided to introduce this kind of difficulty when they could have just made things more interesting by making the existing gameplay more difficult.

The QTEs worked best when used during the more traditional boss battles, like in the bits where you have to jump on a Gigante’s back to slash at its Plaga. Speaking of boss battles, the second Krauser battle brough to mind The End battle from MGS3, except it was so scripted that I didn’t get quite the same thrill from it.

Now, I hate to be so unfair as to have only negative things to say, so: Mercenaries is excellent. It’s basically PN03 2, only with a timer to manage, no acrobatics, and inventory management. Sure, the mechanics are those of RE4 proper, but the kill combo system is the same and the scoring system is similar. Actually, Mercenaries is even more of a proper arcade-style game than PN03. There’s a clock that must be kept filled via powerups; levels are contiguous instead of broken into bites, allowing longer combos and many more ways to attack a level; levels must be learned and layouts must be taken advantage of for high scoring; finally, there are no continues. It’s great fun, and I plan to play a lot more of it. (I do kind of wish Ada could flip around like Vanessa Z. Schneider, though…)


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!