GAME REVIEW: The Last Guardian

written by Melissa Shaw

The Last Guardian is a gorgeously detailed, thoughtful action-adventure fantasy game. You play a young boy who awakens in a cavern with a large mythical creature who is chained to the floor. As the story progresses, you form a bond with the creature, Trico, as the two of you navigate through environmental puzzles set in enormous, elaborate environments, some of ancient ruins, some of dizzying heights. Sometimes you need Trico’s help to survive or progress through a series of puzzles, and sometimes Trico needs yours.

Designed and directed by Fumito Ueda, who brought us the iconic Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian shows the influences of both of those games, particularly Ico. In this game, however, you leave all the combat to your enormous companion.

Although the game offers you only a small selection of simple gameplay mechanics to find your way through each map, it combines these mechanics in an ingenious variety of ways to create challenging and thought-provoking puzzles. Rarely is the path through an area clear at first glance. Fortunately, the game lets you take your time in most sections, which also enables you to explore the lush maps, some parts of which serve no purpose other than to enhance the sense of grandeur and detail of this world.

One of the most notable aspects of the game is the creature design. It may seem odd to use a word like “realistic” to describe a 20-foot-tall, feathered beast with a doglike face, a catlike body, and glowing blue horns, but Trico scans as a realistic animal, with idiosyncratic but recognizable behaviors. His animation blending is seamless, so nothing interrupts the realism of Trico on-screen. He is an appealing companion, by turns protective, affectionate, curious, and fearful. He grows attached to you, following you around, howling mournfully when you’ve gone somewhere he can’t reach. Although Trico moves like a cat, he isn’t perfect; he sometimes misjudges leaps and has to scramble to complete them. His imperfections make him all the more endearing.

Like any real animal, Trico is not a perfectly controllable creature. He has his own agenda and his own limitations. The game requires patience. It can be difficult to communicate what you want to Trico at first, and even when you can, it can take him a little time to do as you ask. The game also requires you to let go of precise control sometimes, and let Trico find his own way rather than waiting for you to direct him.

This game is not without its frustrations. Camera control is sometimes restricted, making it difficult to see. At other times, the camera moves abruptly from one place to another, often to avoid clipping through solid objects. These movements are jarring, and since you move the player character relative to the camera, they can interfere with gameplay. In addition, the game has an atypical controller scheme, with no option to reconfigure it or to reassign buttons. And although it’s a virtue that it is difficult to fall off Trico inadvertently, the flip side of that is that it can be difficult to jump or drop from Trico when you want to. In terms of the story, near the end of the game, there’s a brutal and disturbing cut-scene that’s hard to watch, and another cut-scene that leaves you wondering what you’ve been feeding your friend.

On the whole, though, The Last Guardian is a magnificent game: often quiet and moving, sometimes abruptly exciting, always immersive and beautiful.

10527_1187758026540_1606014926_30480607_3193812_nMelissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.



Game Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

written by Melissa Shaw

I’m not a patient gamer. When I sit down with a new game, I want to dive into the action, run around the world taking in the sights, learn (and use) some skills, and get introduced to and led through a compelling story that doesn’t make me sit still for too long at a time. Which is why I have often avoided RPGs in the past.

Skyrim, the fifth entry in the Elder Scrolls RPG game series, has a lot to offer:Â it’s an enormous game with a breathtaking variety of weapons, abilities, loot, side quests, and strong visuals.

It also has its share of dull, lengthy, in-game exposition scenes, in which you have to sit still and listen to talking heads. And you have to pay attention and press buttons at the right moment — if you leave to find a red-hot poker to gouge your eyes out with, the dialog will repeat, unskippably, until you hit those buttons. At least cut-scenes are staged for dramatic impact, and, in many games, are skippable.

In between those annoying infodumps, however, lies the meat of the game, and it is strong. It’s also surprisingly well gender-balanced; many of the soldiers, thieves, mages, friends, and enemies are female, and their attire matches the men’s, instead of being a stripper’s titillating version of it. After picking your race, gender, and other visual details, you get into the action pretty quickly, and, if the controls aren’t what you’re used to, you can customize them to be more familiar.

One of the game’s strongest sections doesn’t even take place on the surface of the already large map. Blackreach, an enormous cave system underneath much of the continent, is luminous and otherworldly, with half-submerged ruins of the buildings of ancient cities. The attention to detail in this game is impressive; entire rooms exist just to add ambience and robustness, which makes the world feel rich and convincing.

It does take a while to level up sufficiently to successfully take on your earliest opponents, but once you’ve attained level 15 or so, the game progresses smoothly, even if all you do is hack and slash. You can also adjust the difficulty of the game, without being penalized in your ability to get achievements.

Like other Elder Scrolls games, this one tends towards glitches and bugs, which can dramatically affect enjoyability. But the game itself is so expansive and fun that it more than compensates for those irritations. (Also, any issue you encounter is something someone else has probably already encountered, so a quick Google search may reveal an unexpected solution to your bug-based conundrum.)

Overall, while it has a few drawbacks, Skyrim is a long and varied adventure, with a world that grows on you. After you finish the main storyline, you may find yourself dipping back in to pick up the side quests and extend your stay in this compelling land.

Skyrim is available for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Melissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.

Game Review: InFamous (PS3)

written by Melissa Shaw

In 2002, Sucker Punch Productions came out with a cartoonish children’s game for the PS2 called Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus, the first of a trio of Sly Cooper games. The title character was a thief who snuck around cities, climbed up buildings, and ran across wires. Sly’s loyal companions gave him intel and assigned him capers over a radio connection. The various games in the series featured elements like a villain dumping tar into the water supply, our hero following specific NPCs through a city without being spotted, and a blimp filled with “spice” gas whose evil purpose was to drive a city’s denizens insane.

Fast-forward to 2009, and InFamous, Sucker Punch’s new action-adventure game whose main character, Cole, prowls around a city, climbs up buildings, and runs across wires. His companions — some friendly, some hostile — give him intel and assign him capers over a cell phone. Some game elements include a villain dumping tar into the water supply, our hero following specific NPCs through the city without being spotted, and several zeppelins filled with toxic gas whose evil purpose is drive the city’s denizens insane.

To be fair, both the Sly Cooper series and InFamous are highly entertaining, and both offer a great deal more than just those similarities. But the family resemblance is striking enough to make you wonder why Sucker Punch felt so comfortable blatantly ripping off its own games, and why they didn’t at least file off the serial numbers and change enough details to make those familiar elements seem fresher. Maybe they didn’t expect any overlap in the audiences of the two games; InFamous is certainly a far more grown-up and darker game. Where the Sly Cooper games felt like bubblegum comics, InFamous has the feel of a graphic novel. (The Sucker Punch games also share a stylized form of cut-scenes made up of largely still images, with a voiceover narrative.)

The premise of InFamous is that Cole survives a bomb explosion that imbues him with various electrical powers: shooting lightning bolts, throwing energy grenades, and a host of other abilities he gains as you progress through the game. The city Cole lives in comprises three islands, which are quarantined because of a suspected infection from the bomb. Cole’s purpose is to fight the evil gangs who were also transmogrified by the bomb, to help restore order to the shattered city, and to try to find out who set the bomb and why he was affected the way he was.

An interesting game element is that of karma and choice: Cole often has two distinct choices when faced with certain situations, one of which will enhance his good karma, while the other will enhance his evil karma. Heading down either karma path leads to consequences exclusive to that path, in terms of the abilities you gain and the missions available to you. While the overall story is the same either way, there are some interesting differences; the evil karma path leads to the city’s inhabitants shouting insults at you and pelting you with rocks, and to a deeper explanation of the backstory between Cole and an evil sub-boss character, his ex-girlfriend, Sasha. The pinnacle of evil karma is the game’s eponymous “InFamous” ranking.

One of the best things about InFamous is its gameplay, which is fun, varied, and exhilarating. You can climb to the top of the highest building and leap off without getting hurt; in fact, you can slam into the ground in a satisfying attack that sends out a shock wave proportional to the distance you drop. Combat is challenging and unusual, with great visuals of the lightning powers (blue if you’re good, red if you’re evil). A late power in the game even lets you glide through the air for a short distance on electrical currents generated by your hands. Added to the electrical abilities are the game’s climbing moves, which you use extensively. (As Sly’s friend Bentley says in the Sly Cooper games, “The view is always better from the rooftops.”) Almost every vertical surface is climbable, which leads to a great variety of ways to travel around the city. The only downside to the gameplay is that it’s hard to prevent Cole from grabbing a ledge or pipe when you want to just drop straight down, which can get a bit annoying.

Empire City, the game’s setting, is beautifully realized. Its undamaged buildings are varied and convincing, and the effects of the blast — a ground-zero crater area, shattered and toppled buildings, and lots of rubble — are appropriately sobering and affecting. You see the destruction and the fear of the city’s inhabitants, and you want to do something to restore order.

Cole’s relationships with the NPCs are interesting, and they help advance the story. The twist at the end is unexpected but reasonable; it shows that the game’s creators really put some thought into not just the events of the game itself but the history leading up to them.

Overall, InFamous has a strong story, exciting and varied gameplay, and a well-realized setting. Despite game elements clearly borrowed from earlier Sucker Punch games, InFamous stands on its own as a satisfying action-adventure game.

Melissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.

Game Review: “Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier” for the PS2

Written by Melissa Shaw
Reprinted from Fantasy Magazine

“Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier (TLF)” has no business being as entertaining as it is. It’s a Sony PSP port for the PlayStation 2, for God’s sake. To an eye accustomed to the PlayStation 3’s rich visuals, TLF’s graphics seem boxy and crude.

And yet, TLF is great fun, with solid gameplay, an interesting storyline, and a surprisingly compelling soundtrack. It features platforming, environmental puzzles, combat, lots of side quests and mini-games, and high-flying aerial missions that have you zooming around in the dogfighting plane of your choice.

TLF is the first game in the franchise to be developed by High Impact Games instead of Naughty Dog, and it has a slightly different flavor and focus than its predecessors. Gone are most of the familiar characters and locales from earlier entries in the series, as our intrepid heroes venture farther afield than ever before.

TLF opens with Jak, Daxter, and Keira (the only other character who has appeared in previous games) searching uncharted territories for eco, an energy source whose current inexplicable absence is creating storms that threaten the world itself. Find more eco, save the world.

As in previous installments, through the course of the game, Jak acquires weapons and abilities that bring a lot of variety to the gameplay. Instead of just retreading old territory with eco-based powers from previous games, however, this game brings a whole slew of new toys, including a weaponized ball of energy you can throw at enemies, temporary eco-crystals you can grow to change your environment at strategic locations, an ersatz jet-pack, and the ability to slow time (okay, that one was from previous games). The weapons are largely familiar, though High Impact Games has added a powerful grenade launcher that ends up being the game’s most useful weapon.

TLF also offers a number of mods, hidden as treasure throughout the levels or available in mini-quests, that allow you to upgrade your armor, weapons, and planes.

While most of the gameplay mechanics are familiar to fans of the series, in TLF, Jak has lost his ability to turn into the eco-powered Dark Jak or Light Jak. To make up for that, you now get some Dark Daxter segments in which Daxter, the fuzzy little sidekick, falls down a tunnel, gets doused with dark eco, hulks out, and has to navigate his own mini-levels. Unfortunately, these sections are the weakest part of the game, with no camera control, dull environments, and no integration into the rest of the story.

Speaking of camera control, the forced camera perspective in several spots in the game is an annoyance, particularly when navigating an especially tricky platforming section, or when you want to look around for extra goodies. Fortunately, some camera control is available most of the time.

TLF has a surprising amount of replay value in Hero Mode, which becomes available once you have finished the game. As you play through the levels again, you may notice environmental cues that you missed the first time through, and that lead you to secret rooms and hidden areas filled with loot. And if you don’t notice them, the game gently clues you in by sending a small, ethereal blue light to guide you to the goodies when you get close enough.

While it shows its PSP origins in its crude visuals and frequent lack of camera control, “Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier” for the PS2 is still more satisfying than many snazzier-looking action-adventure games for the PS3.

Melissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.

Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum (PS3)

written by Melissa Shaw
Originally printed in Fantasy Magazine

arkhamasylumFrom top to bottom, Batman: Arkham Asylum for the Sony PS3 is a vivid, detailed, and sometimes chilling foray into the gothic world of Batman.

The premise is simple: Batman delivers a newly-captured Joker to Arkham Asylum, the notorious Gotham prison housing all his vanquished supervillain enemies, only to find himself at the center of a sinister plot. The Joker plans to make Batman witness his creation of an army of huge, bestial soldiers by using the Titan venom, a chemical compound developed at Arkham. The Joker’s more personal ultimate goal, which he reveals just before the big final boss fight at the end, is both unexpected and satisfying.

Every step of the way, the Joker is in control, leading and taunting Batman through the game’s earlier levels. But Batman is not without his own resources: an array of gadgets that allow him to master his environment by gliding with his cape, grappling up to ledges and gargoyles, using the Detective Mode view to locate enemies, and more. The fight controls are simple but responsive and effective. The game wants you to feel not only physically powerful but clever, focusing on both fighting and detective skills, and it gives you plenty of tools to do both. Despite the perils of the nighttime environment and its denizens, it’s clear that you, as Batman, are the most dangerous creature at Arkham.

The narrative in this game, written by Paul Dini (a veteran writer and producer who has written for Batman: The Animated Series), holds the game together and gives it added depth, demonstrating the increasing importance of strong scriptwriting as video games become more complex.

The game takes place over a single night, and takes Batman not just through Arkham Asylum but all over Arkham Island, in and out of various large, impressive buildings. From the moldering cemetery to the abandoned mansion, the lavish, realistic settings are filled with nooks and crannies to explore, many of which contain the 240 extras , riddles, trophies, interview tapes, and secrets maps , left for you by the Riddler.

Throughout this long, dark night, Batman encounters and must deal with any number of lunatics, henchmen, and sub-bosses, but it is his battles with Scarecrow and the hallucinations Scarecrow induces that are the most developed and affecting. The Scarecrow sequences are genuinely chilling, and delve deeply into the Batman mythos, producing some disturbing images.

The graphics are gorgeous, taking full advantage of the PS3’s processing power to deliver sharp, detailed settings and characters. (The game is also available on the Xbox 360 and the PC.) Where possible, the game integrates gameplay with narrative and dialog. For example, during the opening gameplay sequence, Batman , under your control , escorts the Joker through the entrance to Arkham, while the Joker taunts Batman, his head and body swiveling in surprisingly naturalistic movement to follow Batman wherever you move him.

The voice-over performances are strong, particularly that of Mark Hamill, who reprises his Batman: TAS role as the Joker with intelligent, psychotic glee. The soundtrack supports the narrative without intruding, creating a sense of menace and urgency where appropriate.

The game is a little on the short side, but the richness of the world and the large number of extras make up for a briefer linear gameplay. The game’s foremost flaw is that while it provides maps of the island and its various buildings, it’s not always clear how to get from one place to another; a door that was unlocked before may be locked now, and because the buildings are so large and labyrinthine, it can be difficult to figure out how to get out.

A more minor flaw , which some will see as a strength , is that despite the budget that Arkham Asylum’s massive scale clearly requires, the warden somehow couldn’t afford to clothe Poison Ivy, who saunters through the game in panties and a half-undone shirt. (While Harley Quinn’s outfit is also brief and geared toward seductiveness, she has the excuse of wanting to please and amuse her paramour, the Joker.) Of course, this game, as with most games, is geared toward teenaged boys, but as the number of adult women who play video games continues to grow, the industry would be wise to be responsive to more of its consumer base.

One note of caution: this game is a dark ride, its nightmarish imagery of corpses and skulls inappropriate for young children.

Overall, Batman: Arkham Asylum is a strong, satisfying game that lets you taste what it’s like to be Batman, up against nearly insuperable odds, but finally winning the day. Or, in this case, the night.

10527_1187758026540_1606014926_30480607_3193812_nMelissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.

Game Review: Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time

RatchetWritten by Melissa Shaw
Reprint from Fantasy Magazine

The new “Ratchet and Clank” game, “Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time (CIT)” for the Sony PS3, has a lot to live up to. The series is renowned for its quirky humor, vast array of gadgets and weapons, gorgeous visuals, and fast-paced, gleefully destructive action.

This installment picks up where the last left off: our favorite Lombax, Ratchet, is searching for his little robot pal, Clank, who vanished just after they won the big boss fight in “Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction (TOD).” (“Ratchet and Clank: Quest for Booty,” a short game that was released between TOD and CIT, was a Ratchet-only digression that, while it had a few entertaining moments, added nothing to the ongoing storyline.) Clank himself ends up becoming a caretaker of the Great Clock, a device that sits exactly in the center of the universe (give or take 50 feet) that maintains and repairs the stability of time. The main villain of the story, Dr. Nefarious (familiar to fans of earlier R&C games), is scheming to gain control over the Great Clock and thus time itself, so he can change history, wrong past rights, and rule the universe.

Like previous installments, CIT delivers lots of weapons (though the Quickselect menu is no longer customizable), enemies, worlds, spectacular visuals, and gadgets. The series’ humor is still firmly in place. Particular favorites include Mr. Zurkon, a homicidal “synthenoid” robot who loves to taunt your enemies (and sometimes your friends), and the battery bots, who complain bitterly every time their brief rebellions against being used as power sources are thwarted. The game also introduces mini-worlds with mini-games that feature various prizes, including treasure items and weapons mods. Clank’s role and abilities are expanded dramatically, particularly with an interesting self-cloning and time-manipulation gameplay mechanic that lends itself to some challenging puzzles. Story-wise, you finally learn more about Ratchet’s mysterious Lombax heritage (turns out he’s not the only one left).

The game is not without its flaws, however. You spend most of the game playing Ratchet and Clank separately, precluding opportunities for the character interactions that make up so much of the series’ charm. Also, the game is slow to get going. It opens with more than six minutes of cut-scenes, interrupted only by one brief training sequence in which you play Clank, not Ratchet. While the cut-scenes are entertaining and slick, they get between the player and the action, and the first four minutes can’t be skipped. The first third of the game feels a bit dumbed-down and slow compared to previous versions, more oriented toward the 8-to-10-year-old set than the older demographic it’s ostensibly intended for. (Minor spoiler alert ahead!) And while it’s likely supposed to be a pleasant surprise, discovering that not one but both of our titular heroes are essentially princes feels heavy-handed and too coincidental.

But the game steadily picks up steam as you progress, and by the second half, it’s worthy of its place in the R&C universe. The game gives you not one, not two, but three big boss fights at the end (although one is dependent on finding all of one particular treasure item, a time-consuming venture), and all are challenging and exhilarating.

The soundtrack is a mixed bag: sometimes orchestral and seamless, sometimes a jarring, retro 80s rock. Standout voiceover performances include Armin Shimerman’s as Dr. Nefarious, and Jim Ward’s as Captain Qwark.

Overall, while “Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time” gets off to a slow start, it ultimately delivers the humor, spectacular visuals, variety of weapons and gadgets, and lively action that fans of this series have come to expect.

10527_1187758026540_1606014926_30480607_3193812_nMelissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.