‘Grim Fandango Remastered’ digs up a classic PC game

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Originally released in 1998, Grim Fandango is often considered to be one of the classics of the adventure game genre, but for years it was difficult to find. At long last, the legal hurdles have been cleared, and a remastered version has been released by the original game’s creator, Tim Schafer, and the people at his new studio, Double Fine.

But does one of the classic LucasArts titles hold up to the legacy it’s built over 17 years? I approached Grim Fandango Remastered as a new player, having never tried the original release. While Double Fine has dusted off the old title and given it a shiny new finish, some of the dated mechanics have still gotten rusty over the years.

Grim Fandango Remastered features a new graphic setting with improved lighting and textures, which can be toggled on and off with a button press.

Grim Fandango Remastered features a new graphic setting with improved lighting and textures, which can be toggled on and off with a button press.

The story is as fresh and unique today as it ever was. Taking place in a Mexican Day of the Dead-inspired afterlife, you control Manny Calavera, a travel agent who helps shepherd the recently deceased to the Ninth Underworld by arranging transportation for them. The better a person was in their life, the faster they can get to the next world, using various methods of conveyance, including taking the luxurious Number Nine Express train. Manny himself is working off some of his karma by helping others, but when even his most immaculate clients are relegated to walking to their final destination, Manny stumbles into a huge conspiracy ripped straight from film noir like The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca.

The characters all appear as charro skeletons, the environments borrow equally from Aztecan architecture and ‘30s Art Deco designs, and the voice acting impeccably brings the memorable characters to life, at times being genuinely touching while maintaining a great sense of humor. Even after so much time, there’s still nothing like this in the world of video games.

The story features a colorful cast of characters many of which are comedic versions of film noir archetypes. Most of the cast is depicted as charro skeletons, but are still full of personality.

The story features a colorful cast of characters many of which are comedic versions of film noir archetypes. Most of the cast is depicted as charro skeletons, but are still full of personality.

While Tim Schafer’s writing remains as sharp as it ever was, the puzzles have not aged quite as well. The logical leaps needed to figure out some of the solutions often seem out of left field, recalling the ‘90s adventure game problem of taking bizarre solutions to seemingly simple tasks. One especially insane puzzle requires you to get a turkey baster, fill it with dirty hookah water, use it to spike a sailor’s liquor, which makes him pass out, so you can steal his dog tags, to plant on a dead body, to later find with a metal detector, all so you can fake his death. Puzzles like this really only make sense in the logic of the story, and even then you might just have to stumble onto a solution by trying every item everywhere. It’s a problem when discovering the solution to a puzzle, instead of making you say “Aha!” makes you think, “How the heck was I supposed to figure that out?”

You can’t really be faulted for getting stumped, but don’t look for an in-game hint system of any kind; Grim Fandango pre-dates helpful features like that.

One feature that was added is the option to play the game with its original, pixelated graphics, or a new remastered mode, which features improved lighting and textures. To see how much the games has improved, you can flip back and forth between the two settings with the touch of a button. In my experience with the game, the remastered mode seemed to create some technical hitches, causing backgrounds to not appear, or sometimes causing the game to simply crash. Patches since the game’s release have improved these problems, but I still recommend saving often to avoid losing progress with a sudden crash. Alternatively, turning off remastered mode solves these problems completely.

Another additional feature is the brand new developer commentary, where Tim Schafer and others who had a hand in creating the game will offer their insight into whatever area you happen to be when you touch a button. These little tidbits of inside information are a lot like the commentary on a DVD; they’re fascinating if you have any interest into how the sausage gets made, but can also get technical at times.

Grim Fandango’s controls have infamously stuck in the craw of gamers for years, but mercifully the remaster allows players to choose between multiple control setups. The original game’s Resident Evil-style “tank controls” are still available for people looking for a nostalgic experience, but if you’re playing with a game controller, you have the option to just press the control stick in the direction you want to go, like most 3D games do. If you prefer to play with a keyboard and mouse, there’s also the option to play by pointing and clicking where you want to go and what you want to look at. However, players who make it through the whole game using the classic controls will be rewarded with an achievement, cheekily named “The Right Way.”

Grim Fandango is still a worthwhile experience for those who’ve never tried it. The story is excellent, but some obtuse puzzles act as roadblocks to experiencing it. Having the help of a guide may make the experience less frustrating for those who get stumped.

Grim Fandango Remastered is available on Steam and the Playstation Network for $14.99. Double Fine provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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‘Sunset Overdrive’ is all about enjoying the apocalypse

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Who ever said the end of the world had to be depressing?

That seems to be the central theme in developer Insomniac’s newest game, Sunset Overdrive, an exclusive to the Xbox One. While titles like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us have focused on the soul-crushing despair of living in a monster-overrun apocalypse, Sunset Overdrive asks, if the rules of society don’t apply anymore, why not take your pants off and go swinging on the power lines? The result plays like a classic Tony Hawk game where you can shoot mutants, or as Sunset Overdrive refers to it, “the Awesomepocalypse.”

Sunset Overdrive offers a mix of Tony Hawk-esque mobility with over-the-top weaponry in a cheerfully-post-apocalyptic world.

Sunset Overdrive offers a mix of Tony Hawk-esque mobility with over-the-top weaponry in a cheerfully-post-apocalyptic world.

The story begins in Sunset City as an energy drink company launches their latest product, Overcharge, at a city-wide party. The drink immediately begins transforming its drinkers into grotesque, bright orange beasts that begin rampaging around town. Your totally customizable main character’s response is to arm him or herself with goofy makeshift weaponry, like a vinyl record launcher or an exploding teddy bear gun, and start looking for other survivors. You can freely explore Sunset City through a hyperactive, cartoonish version of freerunning: you’ll bounce off cars, run along walls, and grind power lines in style as you move from one mission to the next.

This form of uber-parkour makes simply getting around the city a blast, and shooting enemies while grinding on rails feels satisfying, thanks to an assisted aiming system. Doing stylish moves while fighting is a must, as enemies tend to chew right through your health bar when you’re not grinding or bouncing. But moreover, doing those moves will build up a Style meter, that activates power-ups and makes you an even more effective mutant killer.

The game’s aesthetic feels like a rebellion against the overwhelmingly dark and grim shooters that have become the industry norm these days. Bright colors and ridiculous costumes are typical in Sunset City, and the characters never take themselves too seriously, in some cases going as far as to acknowledge that they’re characters in a game. Objectives are pointed out as if they were drawn on the screen, and some sound effects appear in a comic-booky way that will be familiar to fans of Scott Pilgrim. The explosions literally have the word “BOOM” written on them. The focus on this bright, fun atmosphere is like a breath of fresh air, particularly in contrast to Insomniac’s last game, Fuse, which took a very serious turn in tone during the course of development.

This is especially apparent in the character editor. The number of possibilities is staggering, and you can buy more clothing options as you go along. Want to have a mohawk and wear denim? Or wear combat boots with a frilly skirt? The amount of customization rivals games like Saints Row 4 in breadth and absurdity.

The absurdity of your weaponry matches the insanity of the world.

The absurdity of your weaponry matches the insanity of the world.

While the characters may be bright and silly, don’t mistake this for a kid-friendly experience. Salty language is dropped commonly in most cutscenes, and monsters explode in a shower of bright orange blood when they die. These features can be toned down with a feature that removes gore and bleeps out curse words, but the tone overall is still darkly comic. For example, one character has to eat their arms and legs to survive the apocalypse, but still has an overwhelmingly upbeat attitude about it.

The soundtrack deserves special mention. The music is a fitting punk rock medley that would fit perfectly in a skateboard game, but more impressive is that it amps up as you do better. Completing certain tasks or passing specific thresholds on the Style meter will layer new tracks into the mix. Some of the most memorable experiences came as I was tackling a boss fight and lyrics kicked in at the perfect moment as the action got particularly crazy.

But that level of crazy has nothing on the multiplayer mode, Chaos Squad. You can team up with up to seven other players for a bit of friendly competition. You’ll work together to complete specific tasks, such as defeating a supercharged mutant, while also competing to see who can do the most damage. Eight players all working together using their best weapons can become almost too much to process, as bright explosions and acid showers fill the screen. Still, the resulting cacophony of Chaos Squad is an enjoyable extension of the single-player game that definitely lives up to the name.

Sunset Overdrive’s one weak spot comes when it’s time to create new powerups, and you’re forced to defend your home base from waves of monsters in a tower defense game. You can build interesting traps and turrets to hold back the horde, but they always seem to overwhelm your fortifications regardless. Losing isn’t much of a problem, as the game is generous with its checkpoints, and the penalty for dying is almost non-existent. But grinding in circles trying to defend a fixed point feels antithetical to the fluidity of the rest of the game.

Overall, Sunset Overdrive is a video game at its gamiest. The action is fun and frantic, the art is colorful, the level of customization is extensive, and the writing is genuinely funny. People picking up an Xbox One for the holidays will definitely want to check this one out.

Sunset Overdrive is available now for $59.99. Microsoft provided a copy of the game for the purposes of this review.

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‘A City Sleeps’ is a fleeting dream

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Do you ever have a fascinating, enjoyable dream that suddenly ends before you really get a chance to explore it? A City Sleeps is like that.

In an unusual departure for developer Harmonix, creators of the highly-popular Rock Band and Dance Central series, A City Sleeps plays like a blend of tough-as-nails side scrolling shooters like Ikaruga, mixed with the trance music aesthetic of games like Rez. When playing with a gamepad, the basic action is like that of a twin stick shoot-em-up, where your left thumbstick controls the movement of your character and the right thumbstick controls the direction of your shots.

In A City Sleeps, it can get hectic trying to pick out your character amidst the maelstrom of neon-colored bullets.

In A City Sleeps, it can get hectic trying to pick out your character amidst the maelstrom of neon-colored bullets.

The unique twist on the formula comes from the introduction of the game’s dreamy electronic soundtrack. While most shoot-em-ups allow you to grab powerups to modify the rate and density of your shots, here your bullets are different based on the rhythm of the music playing in each stage. Each bullet makes its own beat that enhances the soundtrack by adding another instrument to the background track.

In the interesting but underplayed story, you control Poe, a young woman with the power to enter people’s dreams. However, the story is almost adjacent the actual gameplay; only by reading mission descriptions before entering each dream can you glean any plot details.

In each level, you float through a cityscape and use your bullets and sword to dispatch nightmarish creatures that will flood the screen with their own shots. You can enlist the help of Ghosts, will-o-the-wisp-ish creatures that can be installed in Relics, which are on fixed points of the screen. The effect of doing this will vary depending on which Ghost is used and what kind of Relic it’s installed in. For example, the Mercy Ghost will heal you while the Anger Ghost will fire its own shots to assist you. On the other hand, the Loyalty Ghost will either freeze enemies or shoot lightning bolts depending on what kind of Relic it’s equipped on.

Every action that occurs, whether by Poe, her Ghosts, or her enemies, adds some additional beats to the soundtrack. None of that would be interesting if A City Sleeps didn’t have a fantastic selection of music, Harmonix’s bread-and-butter. The fitting original techno tracks vary from airy synth songs to frantic dance beats depending on how hectic the action is. Even if you’re not a huge fan of electronic music, the effect of being able to add your own touch to the soundtrack makes dispatching foes feel extremely satisfying. In some areas, the beat of the music will even inform how you dodge attacks, making you feel even more connected to the music. The boss themes are particularly intense and memorable.

In A City Sleeps, you control Poe, a young woman with the power to enter people's dreams, and her ghostly companions, each with their own personality and abilities.

In A City Sleeps, you control Poe, a young woman with the power to enter people’s dreams, and her ghostly companions, each with their own personality and abilities.

Unfortunately, there are only three bosses to fight, as there are only three separate stages. When the premise is so strong, its disappointing that there simply isn’t a lot of unique content to experience. Usually, I would welcome a game that can provide a good experience succinctly, but A City Sleeps ends before it really gets started. I would’ve loved a few more stages with their own songs and boss fights, and with such an interesting world, it’s strange that the story is only incidental to that.

The five different difficulty settings are what adds meat to those three stages’ bones, but that also happens to be a sticking point. While I finished the first difficulty setting in about half an hour, the second difficulty setting is a harsh step up, and I struggled to beat even the first level. It matches the no-nonsense difficulty curve of older shoot-em-ups, but getting good requires playing the same three stages repeatedly until you learn enemy patterns and strategies cold.

Unlike most “bullet hell” shooters, one hit will not kill Poe outright, at least not on the normal difficulties. But navigating the colorful world can feel overwhelming, and picking out your character among the ocean of neon bullets is sometimes a challenge in itself. Score hounds will get some mileage out of chasing their friends on the leaderboards, but just surviving each level will be enough of a challenge for most players.

A City Sleeps was made with a small team, especially when compared to the massive efforts Harmonix has made in the past with its Rock Band series. Ultimately, A City Sleeps feels more like a proof of concept than a full game. I hope that Harmonix is willing to give a sequel a shot, because there’s a lot of potential here if they just take the resources to expound upon it.

A City Sleeps is available on PC for $14.99. Developer Harmonix provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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‘Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax’ delivers fast, fresh fighting and story

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Understanding what Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is requires first unpacking the name. Ultimax is an expanded, updated version of 2012’s Persona 4 Arena, a fighting game based on the characters from Persona 4. Persona 4 is a Japanese RPG in the Persona series, itself a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series.

A pop star fighting an android in a food court is one of the many weird matchup possibilities in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax.

A pop star fighting an android in a food court is one of the many weird matchup possibilities in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax.

If any of that sounds convoluted, don’t worry. To put it succinctly, it’s a blast for fighting junkies and Persona fans alike, and no prior knowledge of the series is needed, though it certainly enriches the experience.

For long-time fans of the Persona RPGs who maybe aren’t familiar with the fighting game genre, you don’t have to understand Ultimax’s many different, character-specific fighting styles or have razor-honed reflexes to enjoy the story. In additional to the standard easy, medium, and hard, arcade mode includes a “safety” difficulty setting which “allows anyone to play” through the story. Story mode even has an automatic setting that will have the computer control your fighter for you.

On the other hand, fighting game players will be able to appreciate the intense, mechanically solid and diverse gameplay, which seems to draw inspiration from the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure fighting games and from fast-paced 2D brawlers like BlazBlue. Each character (with one notable exception) fights on a 2D place with standard weapon as well as calling on their Personas for assistance in combat. The Personas tend to be humanoid gods and demons, whose appearance and behavior reflect their controller’s inner personality. When called upon, the Personas can bring out huge weapons or screen-filling elemental attacks to aid their users.

Developer Arc Systems Works is known for making brawlers that feature sprawling, dialogue intensive story modes, and Ultimax is no exception. It differs from its predecessor by ditching the separate storylines for each character and instead offers one all-encompassing story that jumps from one character to another. Be ready to block out a chunk of time to play story mode, the fights are secondary here to the dialogue. I was almost an hour into story mode by the time the first bell had rung.

Initially, “Episode P4” is available to play, a story which revolves around the characters from Persona 4. But completing that unlocks “Episode P3,” which retells the events of the game from the perspectives of the Persona 3 characters. The story is great for Persona fans, bringing back the characters they love for another adventure, and the story mode is well written.

The cast consists of all the main characters from the last two Persona RPGs. The Persona 4 characters seem somewhat uninventive, being mostly high school students wearing similar uniforms, but their personalities come through during the story mode. However, the designs of the added Persona 3 characters, who have graduated and since become adults in the Persona universe, are wildly different, including a baseball player, a Power Ranger-esque archer, and a boy who fights with a spear alongside his dog companion, both of whom have their own personas.

Ultimax's story mode is vast, and mostly told through talking heads, but the personalities are so fun, you won't want to skip a thing.

Ultimax’s story mode is vast, and mostly told through talking heads, but the personalities are so fun, you won’t want to skip a thing.

Impressively, the characters all fight in a unique way, and mastery of any single character will take time. Expect tough competition in the online modes, though the blazing fast action seems to suffer from few online connectivity issues. You won’t be able to blame any losses on lag this time.

You’ll definitely want to take Ultimax online at some point, as a trio of downloadable bonus characters add even more variety to the existing cast, bringing the total of playable characters up to 21. Each bonus character costs $4.99. One of the downloadable characters even has his own story mode.

However, other available downloads seem barely worth the cost. Your mileage may vary on the option to purchase new background music or announcers, but it’s hard to understand the reasoning behind selling different color schemes for the fighters. While some fighting games allow full customization here Ultimax asks actual money for it. That said, each character has quite a few color options available from the get-go, and the lack of having a pink jacket and yellow hair doesn’t change the gameplay.

The music is outstanding, as tends to be the case with Persona games, however the majority of it is transplanted directly from Persona 3 & 4, so fans are going to hear some familiar tunes. The voice acting is some of the best for a dub of a Japanese game in any genre, and it seems like great lengths were taken to make the translation sound natural to English speakers.

Though it’s a deep, mechanically intensive experience that hardcore fighting game enthusiasts will able to delve into, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is also friendly enough that players who just want to experience the story set in the Persona universe can dig in. If you’re looking to get some more mileage out of your last generation consoles, or just need a fighting game fix, Ultimax is a solid bet.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is available for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Publisher Atlus provided a review copy of the game for the purposes of this article.

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Horror gets visceral in ‘Neverending Nightmares’

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

When it comes to horror, movies and video games tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between “startling” or “disturbing.” Jump scares are cheap, but effective ways to give the viewer a temporary jolt of adrenaline, while a psychologically unnerving experience is longer lasting, more intricately crafted, and harder to come by. Neverending Nightmares falls far more toward the “disturbing” end of the scary spectrum.

You play as Thomas, a young man in pajamas wandering around an increasingly unsettling landscape in search of his missing sister. Every new area begins with Thomas waking up from one nightmare into a fresh one, like a infinite version of the movie Inception, but far more twisted. The world of the dream is drained of color, with only specific elements of the world given hues, such as blood streaks on the wall.

Though it features a visually fascinating monochromatic art style reminiscent of Edward Gorey, at its core Neverending Nightmares is a horror exploration game with some stealth elements. As is the recent trend in scary games, players will find themselves helpless against the monsters they encounter in dimly lit, decrepit hallways; combat is not an option. When faced with one of Neverending Nightmares’ host of horrors, players’ only recourse is to run, hide, or try to slip silently by.

Neverending Nightmares' monochromatic cartoon art style clashes with the violent and gruesome scenes you will happen upon in it.

Neverending Nightmares’ monochromatic cartoon art style clashes with the violent and gruesome scenes you will happen upon in it.

The trope of the helpless protagonist in the horror game is taken even further here. Not only can you not fight back against monsters, but even running away will only get you so far. Thomas seems to suffer from asthma, and a few seconds of sprinting will leave him doubled over and wheezing in fear. Another nice touch: our pajama-wearing hero is also shoeless, so walking on stuff like broken glass in his bare feet will make him cry out in pain, possibly alerting nearby monsters.

The black and white aesthetic works well with the tone and art style, but also has a functional purpose to game design. The occasional use of color helps draw the player’s attention by highlighting objects they can interact with. A candlestick you can pick up, for example, will be a different color from the mostly bland room you find it in.

Getting caught by one of the monsters means you’ll wake up suddenly in a nearby bed, which serve as checkpoints, but not before seeing poor Thomas get horribly dismembered. Don’t mistake the Shel Silverstein-looking character designs for a light subject matter. Very adult topics and story themes are discussed, and chunks of flesh and viscera are strewn about the increasingly unfriendly world. Some very disturbing images of self-mutilation bookend each chapter of the story, but they also play into the theme of the narrative, which becomes more clear over time.

Neverending Nightmares is part of an emerging series of games, like Papo & Yo or That Dragon Cancer, that are partially creative therapy for the author. Creator Matt Gilgenbach has been very open about his process and reasoning behind working on Neverending Nightmares. After Gilgenbach’s last game, a unique reverse-rhythm-based-shooter named Retro/Grade, was deemed a commercial failure, he regressed into a period of depression and suffered from intrusive, self-destructive thoughts. Some of the more disturbing scenes in the game are inspired directly by those dark images.

Though it features a few jump scares, glimpses of horrifying scenes in the dark are Neverending Nightmares' bread and butter. And it is a very scary butter.

Though it features a few jump scares, glimpses of horrifying scenes in the dark are Neverending Nightmares’ bread and butter. And it is a very scary butter.

My first playthrough took about two hours, but the story features branching paths that send players to radically different areas near the end. Subsequent playthroughs are streamlined thanks to a “Nightmare Select” option that will let you jump directly to points where the story branches and search for another route. However, I still had experienced all the available routes after about four hours.

The sound design is phenomenal, a crucial element for a good horror game. Ambient noise, an unsettling soundtrack, and distant moans and howls all lend to a frightening atmosphere. The dialogue is awkward at times, but seemingly intentionally so; every strange conversation is just another piece of dream logic in the increasingly bizarre world of the subconscious.

There are no items to collect or speed runs here, Neverending Nightmares is purely about the journey. While $15 might seem like a lot, the game provides genuine chills that should be welcome to players looking for a spooky experience that explores themes seldom touched upon by video games. It’s an excellent way to spend an evening with the lights turned off this Halloween season.

Neverending Nightmares is available on Steam and OUYA for $15. Infinitap Games provided a Steam code for the purposes of this article.

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‘Costume Quest 2’ is more trick than treat

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Costume Quest 2 is the sequel to Double Fine’s 2011 RPG where on Halloween, kids are the heroes, their costumes are their powers, and candy is the currency. The original was noted for its unique premise, funny writing, and kid-friendly approach to the RPG genre. But it seems the sweet presentation may be lacking in substance this time around.

Costume Quest 2 lets players go into combat wearing classic Halloween costumes, such as a wizard, a superhero, or the ever-popular Thomas Jefferson.

Costume Quest 2 lets players go into combat wearing classic Halloween costumes, such as a wizard, a superhero, or the ever-popular Thomas Jefferson.

The story picks up where Costume Quest left off, with a group of kids fresh off of saving Halloween jumping randomly through interdimensional portals, trying to return to their neighborhood. By coincidence, they travel through time to Halloween the following year, and immediately begin trick-or-treating again. The time-travel based story is convoluted, but it revolves around the kids trying to save Halloween again, this time from the holiday’s most dreaded foe, naturally, a deranged dentist trying to outlaw costumes and candy.

The gameplay remains mostly unchanged from the original. You lead the kids from house to house in various neighborhoods trick-or-treating. When you knock on the door, you’re greeted either by an adult that’ll reward you with a pile of candy, or a monster that’ll attack you. In the latter case, you’ll go into a turn-based battle where your powers are determined by the costume you’re wearing, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The Wolfman costume can let you claw and bite your foes, while the Wizard costume will let you cast powerful spells. Precisely-timed button presses can let you do additional damage, block an attack or even counterattack.

There are a lot of new and inventive outfits to equip your characters with, including a Pterodactyl and Thomas Jefferson. But the notable standout is the Candy Corn, which not only does nothing to help, but is also unapologetic about it. Instead of taking a turn in combat, the confectionery costume will offer lines such as “Candy Corn has nothing to prove.”

Costume Quest 2's sassiest outfit, Candy Corn, is totally unwilling to help in a fight, and doesn't care what you think of it.

Costume Quest 2’s sassiest outfit, Candy Corn, is totally unwilling to help in a fight, and doesn’t care what you think of it.

In a curious departure from the original Costume Quest, the flow of battles is broken up by the need to heal your characters between battles, either by running to a nearby drinking fountain, or by eating some of your candy stash. But since candy doubles as money for buying upgrades in the world of Costume Quest, you’ll want to be weary of gobbling up too much of it.

In part due to its simple mechanics and saccharine aesthetic, I’d like to recommend Costume Quest 2 as a “My First RPG” for young kids who are new to the role-playing genre. However, a better initiation into the world of hit points and turn-based combat would probably be the original Costume Quest, which has more solid writing and is more polished. I’d like to recommend it as a “seasonal” game for adults to revel in their Halloween memories, but it tends to stray from that theme, as over half of the game takes place in a dystopian future where the holiday has been outlawed. And for hardcore RPG-fans, mechanically, the combat is just not very satisfying. There’s not enough depth or challenge to really reward using strategy, and games like Paper Mario have done the timing-based RPG battles better.

It does have the trademark charm that Double Fine games are known for; The dental dictator-ruled future is full of tooth-shaped watchtowers, and braces form fences keeping children in line. However, the writing is much weaker than in the original Costume Quest, with fewer laugh-out-loud-funny lines. It falls short of the normally high standard for Double Fine dialogue. The lack of any voiceover also makes the pacing feel awkward at times during cutscenes.

It’s all a bit frustrating, because I feel that the premise of a Halloween-centered video game has so much untapped potential. After the first Costume Quest, I had hoped the sequel would bring a lot more depth and customizability into the costume system, turning it into something akin to the Job system of numerous Final Fantasy games, with each character taking on a different appearance and getting different bonuses from each costume. Instead, each costume looks identical in combat, regardless of who is wearing it. The notable exception is the superhero costume, which becomes a superheroine when a girl character is using it. More of this would have been a welcome addition.

The original Costume Quest stands on its own as a good game, but by the time it was over, I was ready to move on. Unfortunately, Costume Quest 2 adds little to the original formula, and by the halfway point, hitting every house on the block becomes a chore rather than a treat. It’s a bit like bingeing on fun size candy bars same night you get them; it’s good in small doses, but by the time I had reached the bottom of the bucket, I was sick of it.

Costume Quest is available for $14.99 on PC, iOS, and Linux platforms. Double Fine provided a download code for the purposes of this review.

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The rhythm game genre is stayin’ alive with ‘Dance Central Spotlight’

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

One of the hardest parts about transitioning to the new generation of consoles was giving up my beloved rhythm games, and Harmonix was king in that field. There’s no game that utilized the Microsoft Kinect better than Harmonix’s Dance Central series, and that tradition continues with the new “Dance Central Spotlight.” As someone who played the first three Dance Central titles for exercise purposes long after their release, I’m thrilled to finally have a way to dance on the new generation of consoles.

For the unfamiliar, games like Dance Central and Just Dance are rhythm-based games that let players use their body as a controller, swaying and bouncing in time with music. While Ubisoft’s similar Just Dance series offered a more casual party experience, Dance Central required specific dance moves to be precisely recreated to get the highest scores. Just Dance seemed to laud players for moving around at all.

Spotlight is being supported by routines from a stream of recent hit music. We have our fingers crossed for a playable version of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky."

Spotlight is being supported by routines from a stream of recent hit music. We have our fingers crossed for a playable version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

The first three Dance Central games suffered from the sometimes spotty detection of the Kinect peripheral, something that’s greatly improved with the advent of the upgraded Xbox One Kinect. The new camera seems to be able to see players reliably, even in close quarters, if your living room happens to be more cozy than your average dance floor. You can bust a move with more confidence knowing that the Kinect is more likely to accurately read said moves. The improved hand gesture detection also makes navigating menus more responsive and satisfying.

However, compared to the first three entries in the Dance Central franchise, Spotlight is a stripped down experience, both in terms of features and price. In the new $10 downloadable entry, gone are the previous titles’ competitive dance battles, crew challenges, party mix mode, and the somewhat ill-advised story mode. Instead, you have three core options: choose a song, start a workout routine, or go to the online store to download additional songs.

Downloading additional songs is something you’ll almost certainly end up doing, as the base game comes with only ten songs, compared to 30 or more on other music games. This seems to be because Harmonix is positioning Spotlight as less of a standalone experience and more as a platform to continuously update by downloading new songs for as they come out. Upon its Spotlight’s release, over 50 additional songs were available to download at the cost of about two dollars each.

Dance Central Spotlight features new dance moves and more precise detection than any previous entry in the series.

Dance Central Spotlight features new dance moves and more precise detection than any previous entry in the series.

The continuous updates are also reflected in the variety of music; the great majority of routines available are for songs from the last five years. In fact, only a handful of songs from the ‘80s or ‘90s are currently downloadable. This means the selection will likely continue to be updated with the latest hit music. But it’s also disappointing to not see the breadth of tunes available in Dance Central 3. No disco jams this time around.

The initial song selection seems much more mellow than previously curated setlists in the series. Of course, you can dance and clap to the ubiquitous “Happy” by Pharrel Williams, but good luck getting into a groove while swaying to “Royals” by Lorde.

Remarkably, as a bonus for longtime fans of the series, songs downloaded for previous iterations can be redownloaded for Spotlight free of charge, so if you bought a Fatboy Slim song from Dance Central 3’s store, you will have an improved version of it already in your library. This is a fantastic incentive for fans to stay with the series, especially when we expected Spotlight to press reset on the downloadable catalogue. However, it’s worth noting that on-disc songs from previous entries are not transferrable.

Legacy songs are being improved not just with precise detection, but by adding new routines to perform. Every song in the game now has a total of eight unlockable routines, with some easy routines, some focused on strength or cardio training for workout sessions, and some humorous novelty routines with ample butt shaking included.

A few flashes of brilliance stand out among the new features. If you’re struggling with a particular move, rather than waiting to go into a separate practice mode after the songs ends, you can now simply say “Hey DJ, practice that!” out loud and go immediately into training. Most satisfying of all: When playing a two-player match, to begin the song players perform a high five. It just feels right.

Though it’s a bit of a bare bones outing in light of the series history, at a paltry $10, it’s easy to recommend, especially for people who already have an Xbox One with Kinect. For those with just an Xbox One, Dance Central Spotlight practically justifies buying the Kinect add-on on its own merits, and an available $150 dollar package includes the new device and Spotlight together.

Dance Central Spotlight is available to download for the Xbox One for $10 and utilizes the Kinect peripheral. Harmonix provided a review token for the purposes of this article.

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Call your friends on their fabrications in ‘Fibbage’

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Fibbage may be the single most fun experience I’ve had lying to my friends.

Fibbage, a new Xbox One game from the makers of You Don’t Know Jack, came out of nowhere when it was introduced on Amazon Fire TV earlier this year and has become my go-to party game. Between two and eight people can play it at once, but controllers are not necessary. Instead, each player uses a smartphone or tablet to log into the Fibbage website once the game is set up. No complex networking is needed, each player only has to enter a code displayed on your TV screen to join the same game “room.” Then the fun begins.

The easiest way to describe Fibbage is as a virtual version of the classic board game, Balderdash. The object of the game is to come up with the most convincing lie to fool your friends. In this case, each question in the game will present a sentence with a blank in it, such as “Anatidaephobia is the fear that somewhere in the world, a _______ is watching you.”

Fibbage challenges good friends to lie to each other, and happens to be the funniest party game to surface in years.

Fibbage challenges good friends to lie to each other, and happens to be the funniest party game to surface in years.

Players will then be instructed to “enter a lie” on their phones or tablets. So a possible answer could be “government agent” or “television audience” or anything the players can imagine. Once everyone has their answers locked in or time has run out, Fibbage will display everyone’s lies on screen, along with the correct answer, and maybe with a couple of their own lies thrown in as well. Everyone then votes on which answer they think is correct.

Finally, everyone’s fake answers and the real answer are revealed. Players are awarded points for choosing the correct answer, but also they get points for each other player that chooses their fake answer. This works because frequently the answers are so ridiculous that they make players’ lies seem plausible. However, it also helps to have a funny group of friends to come up with smart responses to each question. Anatidaephobia is the fear that a “duck” is watching you, by the way.

Fibbage takes all the humor of a game like Balderdash and streamlines it. Long periods of downtime that would be required for each person to write down an answer, collect the answers, and then read them instead happen in a matter of seconds, and with no need for paper and pencil.

Players can get higher scores by fooling multiple other players, so the winner is usually the most convincing liar.

Players can get higher scores by fooling multiple other players, so the winner is usually the most convincing liar.

While you’re supposed to pick the answer you think is correct, players can also give Facebook-style “likes” to answers they thought were clever or funny. These are tallied up at the end of the game, and the player with the most receives a secondary “Thumbs Cup” prize. This is great if you are occasionally paralyzed by indecision and can only think to enter the word “butts” for every answer.

Everything is presented in an irreverent, game show style manner. If you are familiar with Cookie Masterson, the sarcastic host of You Don’t Know Jack, then you’ll already know Fibbage’s master of ceremonies. The atmosphere is fun, if the subject matter can get a little risque, depending on your group of friends. Children are probably not the target audience, though adults are just as capable of entering the word “butts.”

It’s all great fun, but only when it works correctly. In my time playing Fibbage with friends, we all experienced numerous instances of our phones seemingly locking up during voting or lie-entering phases of the game, something that can be especially frustrating if you have a good lie in mind. We had more success after we disconnected our phones from the wireless network to use our data plans, but occasional disconnects still disrupted the flow of the game.

The game costs $6.99, so the price is extremely reasonable for a good way to entertain your guests. The bigger barrier to entry is getting a large group together, making sure that every guest has a phone or tablet with internet access, and then hoping that there are no disconnects.

Fibbage from Jackbox Games is currently available as a downloadable game for Xbox One and for the Amazon Fire TV and will soon be available for Playstation 3 and Playstation 4.

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‘Journal’ explores sketchy memories

This article was originally posted on The Oakland Press.

Just like in real life, your day-to-day choices may impact people's view of you, but may not radically change your life either.

Just like in real life, your day-to-day choices may impact people’s view of you, but may not radically change your life either.

As a medium that values player interaction as a way to tell a story, video games tend to send the message that the choices we make are tremendously important. In some, a singular binary choice could mean the difference between saving the world and destroying it. We tend to look back on our decisions and say, “If I hadn’t done this a certain way, things could’ve turned out different.” “Journal,” a story-focused PC adventure game, explores the idea that our memories are fallible, and the novel idea that sometimes, our choices don’t amount to anything.

You play as a troubled young girl who opens her journal one day to find the pages blank. But you won’t be platforming around her house to find the missing memories. Recovering the pages is more about coming to terms with those memories than it is actually finding a lost item. In fact, there’s little physical interaction in the game. There’s a jump button, but it’s never really needed. Instead, the story progresses only as you talk to the other characters.

In the first chapter, a window is broken at the main character’s school, and her friend has taken the blame. As you talk to her and various other characters, it becomes clear the main character is the one who actually broke the window, but your choices affect whether she’s regretful, ambivalent, or defiant about doing it. The larger story deals with why the young girl seems to be acting out, and why she suffers from sudden panic attacks.

It’s an emotional story, and one that most people can relate to. But don’t check out Journal looking for a feel-good experience. The story touches on themes of loss: losing friends, losing family, losing innocence. I had a hard time sympathizing with the troublemaking main character, who seemed at times to be acting mean just for attention, but the game’s ending cast everything prior to it in a new light and affected me on a personal level.

Journal uses a hand-painted aesthetic that gives the story a sketch-y quality.

Journal uses a hand-painted aesthetic that gives the story a sketch-y quality.

The art style is unique, utilizing hand-painted backgrounds that look like a child’s artwork. The landscapes have a sort of lived-in quality to them that sometimes affects your progression; for example, a coffee stain on the picture might act as a roadblock and restrict your movement until certain story elements are revealed. It’s a cool effect, but ultimately you’re limited to traversing a two-dimensional plane through each picture, which keeps the story moving, sometimes literally, in a straight line.

Since there’s little opportunity for exploration, the story can be finished in about three hours. At a sale price of $10, it’s a good value. But be aware, this falls into the same category of recent titles like Gone Home that are less a game and more an “interactive narrative.”

Journal is an interesting story, and one that can really only be told through an interactive medium. I hope to see more experimental games like this in the future, maybe with a more polished and accessible presentation.

This review was written using a review code for “Journal,” provided by developer Locked Door Puzzle.

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‘Shovel Knight’ digs up classic gaming memories

This article was originally published on The Oakland Press.

Shovel Knight feels like a game that was made in 1990, buried in a time capsule, and unearthed in 2014.

Many games have tried, but few have been able to accurately replicate the look and feel of a classic NES game. Yacht Club games seems to have nailed the limited color palette, chiptune music, and even occasional slowdown for platform games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. And even more important, Yacht Club understands what it was about those games that made them fun.

Shovel Knight's pogo stick manuever is crucial for getting past the game's massive enemies.

Shovel Knight’s pogo stick manuever is crucial for getting past the game’s massive enemies.

The gameplay is a mixture of various 8-bit platformers, most notably Mega Man and DuckTales, but with some modern design choices thrown in to make it palatable to gamers 25 years removed from those titles. You control the titular hero Shovel Knight, who can use his bladed spade in a multitude of ways: slashing his foes, reflecting bullets, digging up treasure, and in a Scrooge McDuck-esque pogo stick maneuver. You’ll battle through increasingly difficult stages, each themed around its boss Knight, such as Propeller Knight or Spectre Knight, and collect mass quantities of treasure to upgrade your equipment along the way.

The controls are perfect, but the level design still makes each stage a challenge. The difficulty would be daunting if Shovel Knight utilized a classic Nintendo system of giving you a limited number of lives to get through the game, but instead you can continue as many times as you like from the last checkpoint you passed. The only penalty for dying is that you drop a percentage of your treasure, which can be picked up again if you return to the spot you died on your next life. This method, reminiscent of modern games like Dark Souls, makes the cycle of dying and restarting addictive rather than frustrating. You’ll fail many times before you learn the ropes of a stage, but each time you’ll feel reinvigorated to get further than you did before, rather than feeling punished.

Shovel Knight can dig up piles of dirt to reveal a shower of gems and gold.

Shovel Knight can dig up piles of dirt to reveal a shower of gems and gold.

Some old-school aficionados might find the infinite retries a little too forgiving, but the developers have come up with an excellent system to give those masochists the challenge they want. Sprinkled liberally throughout the stages are checkpoint orbs that light up as you run past them, allowing players to replay only the last portion of a level rather than the entire thing when they die. But if you’re so confident in your 8-bit gaming skills that you feel like you don’t need a checkpoint. You can have Shovel Knight smash the checkpoints, releasing some treasure in the process. It lets players choose a self-imposed balance of risk versus reward so novel that’s it’s strange we haven’t seen anything similar to this in the 25 years hence. Just be advised that if you smash every checkpoint to get that sweet treasure and then die fighting the level boss, it’s all the way back to the beginning.

The fun gameplay is enhanced by a weirdly cool sense of humor. In between levels you’ll encounter townspeople, some of whom are bipedal horses, but each who have a lot of personality, despite being 32-pixel sprites. All the Knight bosses are fans of awful puns centered around their theme. Jokes about garden tools are only the beginning. There is even a sidequest that revolves around telling bad jokes. Weirdest of all, Shovel Knight is aided in his quest by the Troupple King, a magical cross between a trout and an apple.

The 8-bit feel wouldn’t be complete without an outstanding chiptune soundtrack. Composer Jake Kaufman delivers in spades here; the music is high-energy and reminiscent of the classic Mega Mans. In one of the few departures from the 8-bit limitations the developers set on themselves, none of the tracks of music will cut out when sound effects are taking up too many audio channels, as was often the case with NES games. It’s a welcome addition, and doesn’t detract from the nostalgic feeling of the rest of the game.

For the purposes of this review, I played the PC version of Shovel Knight. While the 3DS and WiiU versions allow players to use the touch screen to switch weapons, the Steam version allows you to synch up your save files to Steam Cloud, which is handy if you plan on playing on more than one computer. If you do play on your computer, be sure to connect a game controller of some kind; trying to pull off precise platforming on a keyboard is a good way to get hand cramps.

Gamers who remember the platform games of yore will find a lot to dig about Shovel Knight, but even those born after the turn of the century will find an addictive, fun experience, provided they can enjoy the graphics for what they are. Shovel Knight is the pinnacle of retro cool.

Yacht Club Games provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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