Gaming Reviews

[Brief Review] Shovel Knight (Nintendo 3DS / Xbox One)

Shovel Knight, it’s not you, it’s me.

I thought I would join in and play the Cartridge Club’s game of the month for August, instead of going my own way. I had no idea what I was getting into, but was soon introduced to a lil dude dressed in an iron suit that uses a shovel instead of a sword. He’s cute, and blue, and he won me over. It started out a typical platformer, that was easy enough to play. Looks can be deceiving, however…

Shovel Knight is similar to Mario games, in that you lead Shovel Knight through mazes, up ladders and push through obstacles to proceed to the end boss. You are given a map to maneuvre to the next stage, and as you finish a stage or defeat a boss, another area of the map unlocks. Along the way, Shovel Knight uses his shovel to dig tunnels and find needed treasure.

The game looked good, and was totally playable…up to a point. I’m not sure what I was doing wrong, but while playing on 3DS, I could not get Shovel Knight to jump right…or he kept dying…or I couldn’t fire his flare wand right. I tried really hard to push through, and wanted to succeed. I even started the game again on the XBox One to find out if maybe the 3DS’s controls were messing me up. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to matter; as much as I enjoyed what I did play of Shovel Knight, I just could not progress in the game. 4.5 hours later, and I was still on level 2. …And I chose to walk away satisfied in knowing I played Shovel Knight as well as I could. Nothing is wrong with this game, except that it was too difficult for me. Kudos to those who played it all the way through.

Shovel Knight (3DS/Xbox One)
Yacht Club Games
2014

[Review] Silent Hill: Downpour (PS3)

Silent Hill is a survival horror franchise that I have a little history with. I played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories on the PSP five summers ago and was terrified most of the time. I reflect back on that survival horror game, and consider it one of the first from the genre that got me into playing scary games in the first place. When the hubs suggested we play Silent Hill: Downpour together on the PS3 this past December, I agreed to it. Together, we slogged through it over a couple of weekends.

You play as Murphy Pendleton who is, at first blush, all kinds of bad. In prison serving an unknown wrap, Murphy is making enemies everywhere he goes, including officer Ann Cunningham, who has a serious bone to pick with him. It is while being transported to another penitentiary that Murphy’s bus crashes, killing everyone on board but Murphy. He is left to his own devices in the forest, but before he can even think of his freedom, he finds himself amid the eerie, rainy and somewhat abandoned town of Silent Hill, a perpetual hell where there is never any escape. While in Silent Hill, Murphy is pursued by monsters which he must defend against. He goes searching through the town, exploring abandoned buildings to find clues about his fate and objects he can use for his escape. Silent Hill’s gloomy buildings can transform spontaneously into a parallel universe where the walls turn dark, blunt obstacles turn sharp, and red shadows chase and disorientate Murphy.

Murphy’s back story is a mystery from the get-go. You are given very few details about him, and as the game progresses things eventually fall into place (sort of), but it’s a long winding journey. The gamer is provided with flashbacks periodically that lift the curtain a little on Murphy, but I have to say the pacing of the story was very slow, and I soon found myself impatient, wondering why the hell this guy was in Silent Hill, and why the heck I should bother saving him in the first place.

You direct Murphy in third-person gameplay. Like other Silent Hill games, Downpour had some jump-scare moments, especially when Murphy suddenly entered into the evil parallel world where he was being chased, or gets confronted by a monster. To that end, I found the combat in Downpour was pretty lame. You are only able to pick up one weapon at a time, each often felt pretty ineffective. Along the way you are given a gun, but the aiming sucks, so it barely did anything. Beating a creep down with any weapon, in fact, felt like an exercise in futility, and we often found ourselves running away from a monster as a more effective method than sticking around.

Wild guess: Which screenshot comes from Silent Hill: Downpour and which is from Alan Wake?*

Throughout my experience with this game, I couldn’t help but think the game designers of Downpour took inspiration from Alan Wake, nicking some key plot tropes from one of my favourite games. In fact, I can think of at least 10 similarities between the two:

  • A gloomy landscape
  • Forest hiking
  • Use of a flash light
  • Flocks of birds that attack
  • Flashbacks to the past
  • Riding a Gondola lift
  • Breaking into spooky buildings
  • Trespassing through diners and gas stations
  • A Female police officer
  • And look out for gusts of wind and fog; the monsters are coming!

There are more but, this list is a start. Whether by accident or coincidence, Downpour has really tapped into obvious parallels with Wake. The whole time, I turned to the hubs and said, “I feel like I’ve played this before….This feels like Alan Wake…” Except, Alan Wake is two years younger than Silent Hill: Downpour…and does things a lot better than this game; the story, weapons and general gameplay were much more enjoyable.

I can’t help but feel disappointment with Silent Hill: Downpour, especially since Shattered Memories was so engrossing. Take a pass on Downpour – there are better survival horror games out there.

2/5

Silent Hill: Downpour (PS3)
Konami
2012

*Alan Wake is on the left, Silent Hill: Downpour is on the right.

[Review] Monument Valley (iOS)

I love it when ‘fee and gaming collide…

A Starbucks recently opened on the college campus where I work. I am not a lover of Starbucks really…I mean I don’t refuse free Starbucks, but I don’t go out of my way to drink it. In any case, one day last fall a colleague of mine and I found ourselves in the line-up at this shiny new Starbucks. I had no plans to pick up anything; my colleague was after the 6-dollar spinach and cheese pastry. As we approached the cash, I noticed a sign that said, “Starbucks Free App of the Week!” along with a pile of little cards. What is this! I loves me free! I took one of the cards, and discovered it contained a free key code to a game I had never heard of before called Monument Valley. The graphic for the game intrigued me immediately so I thought I had nothing to lose by trying it out. The only barrier was that the key code given was for the game in the iOS environment. I am predominantly an Android user, but thankfully, I have access to an iPad at work, so I was able to use the key before it expired at the end of September. This was the first game I actually played on the iPad, and am pleased to say the experience was a good one. And as it turns out, Monument Valley was a pretty fun game.

I am not exactly sure what the story is behind Monument Valley, but it is a puzzle game where you lead your main character, Princess Ida, through and around beautiful, odd structures and mazes, in her personal quest for forgiveness. The puzzles remind me of the stylings of M.C. Escher (1898-1972), where every puzzle contains a visual paradox. With each puzzle your mind is constantly being bent around in an optical illusion as you tap around, leading Ida through each scene. Levers, turnstyles and strategically-placed buttons are available for you to control platforms and catwalks so that Ida can advance through a scene. The game’s mechanics are very much reminiscent of the Room and the Room 2 (games I reviewed here and here) where you are presented with a puzzle to solve in order to advance to the next room, as well as having the ability to interact with the scene, and move your perspective around to find the correct path you need to send Ida down. Stylistically speaking, keen eyes can’t deny drawing similarities to Kentucky Route Zero (a game I have reviewed previously), particularly in its use of muted colours and fonts. To that end, each scene is beautiful – vibrant, and visually appealing. GORGEOUS, in fact. With every scene, I almost want to take a screenshot, print it out and frame it!

Although a pleasant time-waster, my only real critique with Monument Valley (aside from an unclear plot) was the lack of a serious challenge. It was also a short game, as I completed all the levels in an evening. The game was designed for the iOS environment (it won Best Game for the iPad in 2014), then ported to Android, so I am unsure how it translates to Android. Regardless, Monument Valley is a very placid game, non-stressful, and a decent user experience. …And expensive – $5.99 in Google Play and Apple App store. So, if you can get it for free or at a discount, I recommend it!

7.5/10

Monument Valley
Developer: Ustwo
iOS / Android / Microsoft Mobile / Windows
2014

[Review] Carrying a Torch for Torchlight II (PC)

Right now, I have somewhere between 15 to 25 games installed on my computer. I realize that might not be the brightest idea as games can generally take up massive hard drive space. But sometimes I am reluctant to uninstall a finished game from my PC, for fear of losing all my saves, or simply because I am not ready to let the game go yet.  What if I feel like mucking around and searching for long lost missions I never got to? What if some kickass downloadable content for the game is released? Instead of reinstalling the game and replaying everything again, I can just continue on where I left off.  I have also run into times where I’ve started a game and because of certain unforeseen circumstances, I’ve had to abandon it mid-play, with the hope of picking it up at a later date. Games like this also reside lovingly on my PC. One such game is Torchlight II.

In the Spring of 2013, between playing Earth Defense Force:Insect Armageddon and Borderlands 1, the hubs and I installed Torchlight II on our respective computers via Steam. Torchlight II is an Action Role Playing Game (ARPG); its genre wasn’t completely foreign to me at the time. Having completed Insect Armageddon with the hubs, I was just starting to gain an understand of what it meant to manage my character’s weapons and skills within a game; the crux of what an ARPG entails. I can’t say at the time I fully understood the interworkings…but I definitely had enough knowledge to finish the game. Torchlight II is a more complex ARPG from Insect Armaggeddon – now having to manage my character with more care; swapping out better clothing, assigning skill points to certain abilities and make sure my weapons were up to snuff when I leveled up. All of this was more involved, exciting even…and daunting. But, with help from the hubs, I stuck with it, clocking in over four hours of gameplay.

Then, it had to happen. Technology had to fail us! We ran into all kinds of issues with Torchlight II that prevented us from enjoying this game together. Our LAN and internet connection was causing lag, or we’d lose the internet altogether (it was our router)…that issue made us quit playing Torchlight II together. We decided to play the game on our own.

After that day, however, I didn’t bother to pick up Torchlight II again, but left it installed on my computer. There was something about this game that I wasn’t ready to give up on. It would call to me, and I’d think, “yes, I’ll get back to this.”

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, and the hubs asked if I wanted to try playing Torchlight II together again. I said I was interested, and to my surprise when I booted up the game, my last save point from 2013 said I was already at a level 12! Trouble was it had been a while, and I was a bit lost on the mechanics of the game. But, with the hubs’s brief menu tutorial and orientation, I was up and running again. To get me to my husband’s level 38, I had to level up further, which forced me to play the game by myself for about a week. It was a worthwhile pursuit. I had a blast, let me tell you!

Ask me what the plot to Torchlight II is, and I couldn’t tell you really other than to say I don’t feel one needs to play the first Torchlight game in order to play its sequel (I didn’t). The game’s setting is in a medieval futuristic steampunk middle-east Neverland, where people are able to port to the future, but live in cold stone castles (how’s that for contradiction?). The strength of the game is immersing yourself in missions to collect objects or to fight against bosses and their cronies. Your character teleports to distant worlds and caves to fight ugly bugs, bats, skeletons and monsters. The worlds you explore are mysterious, and sometimes gorgeous, and vary from humid forests and arid deserts, to damp and cramped caverns. Each place you explore is randomly generated by the game, and depending on where you wind up, you could be dealing with weather (rain and snow has been known to fall!). Each locale is connected to a “home base” or main town that you can teleport to where you can find merchants to buy and sell items from, a blacksmith to sharpen and fashion weapons, among other characters. If you care to sidetrack yourself from the main campaign, you may want to take part in some side missions as well, where you experience more interesting worlds. You pick up weapons, gold coins and health potions as you go, which you can use in your battles, or resell for currency.

This time ’round, I chose a kickass woman as my character I ubiquitously called Olbag*. Classified as an Outlander, Olbag is a nomadic, no nonsense chick ready to attack. She also had an awesome pet, a wolf-dog I named Danger who helped her in attacks.

You micro-manage your character in this game, right down to how they dress. Every inch of clothing, weapon and skill has a level assigned, which you must oversee in order to succeed in the game. It sounds like work, and no doubt it is. That alone might turn a lot of gamers new to ARPGs away. But, Torchlight II‘s menu system made it easy for me to understand what I was doing and how to proceed. And truthfully, I think my past gaming experience with tougher games  like Mass Effect, Borderlands and BioShock made this character-management stuff in Torchlight II actually fun.

And you all have heard me complain about mapping systems in games, and how shitty they can be. Let me tell you, Torchlight II got the map right. Easy to follow, and right there in the upper right hand corner of the game, visible at all times while you are playing the game; no having to go back into the menu to access the map (this game is tugging at my disoriented heartstrings!).

My second go-around with Torchlight II was the first time I felt like I could hit the ground running and just simply play this ARPG without stressing out whether I was doing the right things…I even saw a difference in how the hubs and I interact and play within Torchlight II together in co-op. For one thing, we weren’t yelling at each other for being in each other’s way. I even felt comfortable taking the lead in some of the missions. The tide has definitely turned for me and ARPGs. For once, I feel like I am home in the game, and for that, I will remember Torchlight II as being that defining game for me.

4.9/5

Torchlight II
Runic Games
2012

*Olbag (or “Old Bag”) is commonly what I name my female gaming characters. I’m poking fun at myself here…