Saints Row: The Third (xbox 360)

Saints Row: The Third is an action sandbox game with crime simulation elements and is the third instalment of the Saints Row series.  Its frame work notably adopts the formula of the Grand Theft Auto series, however focusing on a more zany and madcap experience as opposed to the gritty realism of its counterpart. The game’s overall presentation and humour maintains a tongue in cheek presentation throughout, being self-aware of its own inanity through metafictional gags, exaggerated parodies, as well as including a gamut of well-known cultural references.

The game focuses on the street gang known as the Saints and picks up after Saints Row 2 where the gang maintains control and infamy over the city of Steelport, having decided to move their operation from Stillwater. Having indulged in the excess of fame and fortune, the Saints have redesigned their image as a media brand name, marketing their malfeasance with tacky merchandise and concessions as well as garish advertisements, movies and comic books.  With their newfound authority over the city, the Saints decide to rob a bank as a publicity stunt, complacent that their influence on the cities’ authority figures gives them free reign over Steelport.  However this complacency does not go unnoticed as a larger local organised crime group simply known as The Syndicate intervene and kidnap the Saints’ members.  They then proceed to give the Saints an ultimatum; have the assets and brand names absorbed into The Syndicate or have their entire operation liquidated. The saints refuse and manage to escape but are divested of all their wealth and resources.  The player is left to pick up the pieces and restore the Saint’s influence over Steelport.

When the player is finally given the reins and allowed full access of the city itself, it is presented as a sort of caricature of modern urban living at its worst, exaggerating the hedonistic and deprived underbelly to the nth degree. We see people casually walking in unflattering outfits such as pimp outfits, dominatrix suits, gimp suits, people wearing only underwear, lingerie, and even oversized mascot costumes. As well as the general public on the streets, the local criminal gang members also have gaudy attire, some with day-glow transfers and colours outlining their clothes and vehicles.

Steelport is also rife with gambling halls, gun shops, dance clubs, televised battle arenas as well as the player not being able to go down one street without a porn shop, strip club or adult theatre staring them in the face. It’s a game that relishes every moment to show you the excess of the city itself, and lavishes in its unedifying embodiment of debauchery and wasteful extravagance at every given turn.

While attempting to be hyper-realistic in places, the game can also offshoot into the more outlandish territory. This includes encounters with zombies, weapons transposed from cyberspace, super futuristic aircrafts with laser guns as well as mollusc guns that shoots octopi which brainwash victims into subservience.

The main storyline missions attempts to give some context to game’s environment, albeit very loosely. There is more of a fixation of packing as much into the game as possible, with some effective set pieces that begin to get more nonsensical as the game progresses. The first half of the game is dynamic enough to keep the gameplay engaging and is genuinely entertaining while it lasts, however has difficulty understanding the most effective way to keep the momentum going besides keeping the action as frenetic and far-fetched as possible.

The game also includes side missions and extra activities which are fairly conventional for a sandbox set up.  This can include side objectives or just activities  that are happenstance depending on the area you’re currently traveling through. Activities from the previous entries make a return here such as Mayhem where you have to destroy as much property as possible within a time limit, Heli Assault where you protect drug deals with a helicopter or gunship and Insurance Fraud where you purposely endure injuries from oncoming vehicles in order to claim health insurance.

The game also includes new actives such as Tank Mayhem which is a rehash of Mayhem but with a tank, and the new Genkibowl mini game included in the DLC Genkibowl VII.  This pits you in a sadistic game show format mission, where you have to survive a deadly obstacle course while killing other contesters; a format heavily reminiscent to the Running Man film.  There is also a whored mode in the main menu where the player has to survive a set wave of enemies with limited resources provided and a co-op mode where the player can play the main game a teammate .

These games can be fun to play alongside the main missions to gain money for new upgrades and weapons, however the spoils received from the main missions are hefty enough to cover most expenses as well as providing weapons effective enough to finish the game without much exertion.  This may vary if you pick the harder difficulties however on normal most of the missions become fairly easy. In addition to this the game includes a levelling system in which you level by doing impressive feats that earn respect (experience points essentially). Each level allows you to spend money on perks as you progress. This can lend the player some nice additional attributes however the most useful perks requires unlocking higher levels which are unlikely to be reached by the end of the game unless the player grinds the available activities.

Perhaps the biggest noticeable problem with the game’s structure is its pacing.  Thirty minutes into the game, the player is assaulting a military base for weapons and then proceeds to steal a high tech army reaper drone. Forty five minutes later the player is given access to a penthouse, a helicopter and a rocket launcher. Then an hour later the player acquires a tank, which is really something you should see closer to the end of the game.  

Most of the missions did have an interesting variety however the most memorable content were so densely clustered at the beginning of the game, that the later missions repeated some of the same formula in order to pad out the game’s lifespan.  Kinzies mission line for example was laden with a litany of the same Mayhem, Escort and Guardian Angel missions, over and over in a manner that became very repetitive and tasking to do.

Essentially the crux of the problem with Saints Row: The Third is that the game is too generous with the content on offer. The games ethos makes it a point to put emphasis on fun over realism with the enablement of the player to have wacky antics by wacky and grandiose means. However by not spreading the content out finely, the entertainment value from such overpowered devices wears thin very quickly.  It would have been more sensible to spread out the availability of the more devastating weaponry to later segments of the game, as well as space the more engaging missions  apart with  slower paced missions used to further expand the plot and characters.

In addition to this, while effective in places, the momentum of the humour and appeal throughout is very heavily reliant on gags. You can only get so much mileage from exaggerating the game’s environment but without any other depth to invest the player. The low-brow humour and shallow visual gags become very transient and instantly forgettable. Though the motivations of each character are competently done for the most part, there was little expansion of their personalities to deem them memorable besides giving context to the objectives at hand, and deriving humour from their epithetical character stereotypes. There are also a few gags that are slightly off-colour and can be deemed misogynistic. This is apparent in the mission The Ho Boat where the players must steal prostitutes stocked in crates from The Syndicate in order to dishevel a part of their business empire. The representation of prostitutes as livestock or being a  material product under someone’s ownership seems quite distasteful.  While the agenda may have been to subvert the concept for comical effect, the end result delivers an inappropriate message that the game developers may not reflected upon in hindsight.

There are also a few slight glitches and problems which are to be expected in a vast sandbox game, however were still very jarring. The most noticeable is how the AI does not always react to players in close proximity as well as intended set sequences going awry, which in turn gives players ample time to take opposition out.

While the initial set up delivers a large burst of entertaining set pieces to being with,  Saints Row: The Third ends up being so distended with content from the outset, that there is little left to maintain the appeal throughout. A rivetingly dumb action game for the first few hours that burns twice as bright yet engages the player for half as long.

Skyrim (xbox 360) extract written in 2011

Before starting this review let me preface by saying that I am not an avid Elder Scrolls fan. Early attempts to scratch that fantasy itch in the form of Marrowind and Oblivion did little to get me in enthralled in the world of Nirn, the setting of the Elder Scrolls series. From Marrowind ‘s delivery of the main story condensed into a text windows,  to the lifeless interactions in Oblivion where NPCs awkwardly exposit  their dialogue, while remaining motionless in what can only be described as a case of badly programed rigor mortis.

This did little to sell me on the franchise and upon the release of Skyrim  I kept a good distance from the absurd amount of praise it received, as well as gently humouring my friends discussing Skyrim’s excellence,  like an impartial parent  obligingly nodding as their child prates on about their Ben 10 fad.

It was only a few months after the initial wave of hype, when I started to take notice of the commentary from a few gaming news outlets, where some of the more hardened critics let down their veil of cynicism, to admit that Skyrim is actually a very good game.  After deciding to play a few hours of Skyrim, all I can say is that I hope there is room for latecomer on the Elder Scrolls bandwagon, as this is game really is an impressive feat in the RPG genre.

Bethesda really went the extra mile in creating a more polished fantasy experience in Skyrim, taking up the call to arms to fix previous problems witnessed in earlier titles. This insured that the finer elements of the game satisfied the more critical of naysayers as well as opening up the game to a larger fan base.

After leaving a perfectly executed tutorial segment shaped around escaping an imperial encampment, Skyrim takes off the invisible leash, and leaves you open to play the game in any fashion you desire. There is no need to feel duty bound to complete the main quest, as there are plenty of side quests, dungeons to explore and even crafts to take up such as alchemy or the blacksmith craft, while working towards completing the game.  The game itself has a vast amount of secrets, that only specific approaches to the game will unlock, lengthening its shelf life and ensuring that there is always something left for you to discover.  As well as elements such as randomized chest drops and story altering differences from the choices you make, which means that overall experience will change every time you start a new game.

 The skill system is also massively improved upon.  At the start of Oblivion, players were originally strong-armed to pick a specific group of skills to be proficient in, which forced players to stick closely to their choices, punishing experimentation outside of this skillset with a slower learning progression. In Skyrim however, this system has had a massive overhaul, where every skill imaginable is available from the outset, without any restrictions on how long it takes for the character to learn them.   You increase a certain skill level from its repeated use, which in turn also levels up your character the more you use them.

The Perks available in the game is also reimagined in the form of a Perk tree where players are allowed to try out particular abilities first, before deciding on what perks they wish to branch out on.  You can also mix particular branch trees together,   which can even give options of turning your character into a hybrid of various jobs classes, such as mixing a magic user with a battle hardened melee class.

The combat system also includes some newly added features as well. Players are allowed to allocate a particular magic spell or weapon to each hand which can be used with the left and right trigger buttons. This allows for more flexible playing styles made by the interchangeable use of magic abilities, weapons, or even both simultaneously.

Another noteworthy observation is that the landscapes of Skyrim are now very diverse, that not only made up of meadows and dense areas of forestry, by also includes areas that match a regional climate, such as snow-blanketed plateaus, and cold barren wastelands. A massive improvement over the previous title Oblivion, whose use of recycled countryside textures made the entire expanse look dull and uninspired.

However a game as liberating as Skyrim unfortunately gives way to some rather glaring flaws.  While the game rewards creativity exponentially, this also allows for some very nasty exploits. For example it is fairly easy for the more astute player to skill up things such as one-handed skills very quickly, by hacking away at certain NPCs in the game. This is because programed scripts set for certain non-player characters restricts them from being unable to respond to stimuli outside of a script’s parameters. This allows opportunistic players to skill up a weapon or magic spell on a respective NPC with little fear of retaliation.

There is also a game breaking cheat in the game involving a particular quest that rewards you with a book that gives you a hefty amount of experience points.  If intuitive enough to exploit certain game options, this book can give you an infinite amount of experience points and skill perks in a very short space of time.

Because the game has a massive open world to explore, be prepared to encounter a few glitches while traveling around Skyrim, such the odd creature  or enemy NPC  acting erratically, as well as how certain approaches to the game can break certain side quests. While this can be slightly irritating, this will not ruin your overall experience of Skyrim as they are not serious enough to make the game unplayable.

While Bethesda has not quite perfected the open world RPG format, Skyrim is a massive leap in the right direction, abound with various available content in-game that will keep players returning to a continually fresh gaming experience.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

The First Person Shooter is a densely saturated market. Enter any high street game store that still exists today or any online distribution site like steam and some form of advertisement for a FPS variation will be seen in storefront; usually in the form of a banner or a cardboard display unit. The military based shooters particularly have a dye in the wool fan base and a large mass appeal for its multiplayer content.  A meal ticket for such enduring series as Halo, Wolfenstein, Medal of Honour and even Battlefield to mass produce what is arguably the same game experience, with slight improvements to the formula.

I mainly keep these games at arm’s length primarily because of how frequently this genre is comfortable at selling a weak or simply serviceable single player experience bare-faced, knowing that their multiplayer content  is primarily where the larger interest will lie. As well as the future-proofing each game series through simply rehashed sequels due to  high demand, needing do little to innovate their franchise to maintain interest.  Creativity does not seem to be a main driving force for these titles’s development and while the gameplay maybe polished due to a larger budget than most game developers, there is little in terms of unique or industrious design to go against the grain.

However on numerous occasions I have been pointed to the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Series that apparently serve as the exception to the rule. The series’ first game in particular is noted to have a strong storyline, and action set pieces that sets themselves apart from the typical shooters.

The original Call of Duty games took place in World War II and simulate infantry based warfare using AI controlled allies as fellow infantry men to accompany the player. The gameplay also attempted to work within the actual events of the war, while also working with its own continuity. However the modern warfare series is an attempt to deviate from this formula and base its own continuity on a reality close to the current modern era.

The original is considered the strongest of the three however I wanted to see how my experience would fare by playing the second game and wanted to concentrate on the single player campaign to  how well it stands alone from the series and if it is able to maintain the same enduring quality as the first game.

The first twenty minutes did not begin well, as General Shepard narrates the situation of the current affairs in a pretty cliqued and somewhat roundabout fashion. Instead of simply giving us a succinct overview of previous events, he delivers a stream of very awkward Hollywood platitudes and aphorisms. It’s the typical hard-boiled veteran spiel and is plentiful with such splendours as “the more things change the more things stay the same”, “History is written by the victor” and “same shit different day”. However after a convoluted  introductory cut scene the gameplay slowly starts to build momentum, beginning with a slightly by the numbers scenario involving a terrorist occupied city, with some well executed set pieces becoming a saving grace.

 One of the key strengths of the game is the variety on offer as well as the cinematic presentation to the gameplay that adds to the immersion, attempting to create an experienced likened to an interactive movie. This includes a down to the wire escape from a local militia,  surviving  the epicentre of an air strike while watching surrounding buildings collapse and burst into flames by enemy barrage,  as well as a frenetic snowmobile chase making up a few of the more memorable moments.

The Variety of level designs also make full use of their set locations, such navigating the confined alleyways of the shanty towns (Favela)  in Rio de Janerio  to avoid the local militia, escaping a police dragnet in Zakhaev International Airport, and infiltrating an enemy base in the cold snowy plains of Kazakhstan. Each setting seems to emulate action set pieces which are commonly  seen in action  movies; almost to the point of being a pastiche. The action on screen never becomes tedious and the pacing is kept constant and interesting by giving the player a diverse range of objectives that have sense of urgency to finish, and hold weight to them in a manner that feels satisfying to complete. The resulting aftermath after one of the big pivotal moments in the game is conveyed with severity where the Task Force and U.S. Army have to repel the onslaught of Russian troops, who take the war to the east coast of the USA; taking over monuments, momentous buildings and landmarks. The player can really feel the tension and sense of disarray as the Russians seem to successfully occupy strategic locations and causing large sections of the east coast to become completely levelled. Atmosphere is one of the key things that convey the plight of the US army well, where the player is placed in the epicentre of some very sticky situations.

However while these sections are entertaining,  there was little gravitas in the overarching  narrative that ties each mission together, making it hard to feel invested or attached to the occurrences on screen.   There was barely any coherency to why events were unravelling and resulted in each mission feeling very isolated from each other, leading to the narrative becoming disjointed. There were no clear objectives or motivations  given the terrorist leader Vladamir, serving as a bit of a faceless antagonist, other than being a ultra-nationalist and “mad dog killer”; even though he goes to some very extreme measures to achieve his goals.  

 This plot as well as the sequences causing the war with Russia is vaguely touched upon as well as the outlining plot delivered by cut scenes giving little in terms of exposition. In addition to this the protagonists on screen are simply there to just to follow orders  and serve as  blank slates for the player to vicariously insert themselves into.  The accompanying NPCs also do little besides relaying orders and hollering “go go go” “move move move” ad nauseum.

The exception to this are in the characters  John “SOAP” Mactavish and John Price who are  SAS  operatives from the previous modern warfare. However their motivations in the later missions are explored a little too late in the narratives development to become better established or expanded upon. There are also a few twists that occur in the last four missions of the game with a turncoat villain revealed.  However there is little explanation to the motives for the aforementioned twists and why they occur.

Each mission can be assessed on the merit of being good isolated scenarios and in the sum of their parts are entertaining little set pieces in and of themselves, but do not work quite as well when trying to create an overarching plot intertwining them. It feels that the designers Infinity Ward concentrated on making memorable level design a primary focus and plot to connect them a distant second;  where the riveting action on screen is there  as a means to compensate for a meandering storyline. There are also some moments where suspension of disbelief is tested, and more so as the game goes on, such as surviving a helicopter crash while being trapped inside its metal frame which is something that doesn’t seem very plausible.

The game engine mechanically is fairly solid with little noticeable glitches or problems. There are also some well implemented features included such  the iron sight aiming feature of your weapon which will automatically align the sight on your enemy if the gun is pointed near the target. The mechanic where you can throw back enemy grenades can be awkward  as they can  land in way that seems easier by reaction to simply run away, and can be disorientating to react to while swept up in the action.

You also get a variety of weapons with have its situational use and are showcased decently in the game.  You have the riot shield primarily used in the Gulag level which helps players press forward against opponents trying to bottleneck you in narrow corridors, the M4A1 with grenade launcher attachment which can be good crowd control against a group of enemies, and also the predator drone missiles, where you can control an air to ground missile fitted with a camera to guide it to hapless targets. 

The accompanying NPCs are also pretty efficient and for the most part are able assist the player greatly; which can at times be to the games detriment. There were times where I found myself being carried by the NPCs where my contribution seemed insignificant at times. You may find that on the regular difficulties you can complete the game with minimum effort most of the time, as the fellow NPCs are able to plough through opposition without much effort on the player’s side.

The game does includes obligatory multiplayer and challenge options that are in the same vein as other military shooter titles, which will probably give the game a longer lifespan. It’s a shame that while the main single player experience is enjoyable it still feels like a subsidiary component of the multiplayer content.  

 Overall Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 is still enjoyable and fresh in its variety and gameplay to captivate the player from beginning to end, at the cost of being a slightly shallow experience.  A fun title to play as a weekend rental but not one the player will keep returning to.

South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC)

The South Park TV series itself needs no introduction, making an uncompromising approach to stray from most television conventions and wholesome day time programming; infamous for offbeat humour and a willingness to break taboos.  However veiled underneath it’s abrasive delivery and lowbrow humour lies some intelligent cultural observations and hard hitting satire that has become something of a muted household name. But alongside this success also comes an inexorably bad reputation: A longstanding history of terrible Video Game tie-ins.

Considering Matt Stone and Trey Parkers cultural savvy in general and grounded knowledge of video games, one would think this would be conducive to producing a decent South Park game. So why has any game with the South Park licence been a grating cavalcade of bare bone gameplay and frequently missed opportunities?

Business naivety seems to play a big part of this, approaching game developers whose business ideology is focused more in the attached licence and less in creative collaboration. When signing a contract with Acclaim Entertainment the final product titled simply “South Park” in 1998 had little to offer. It was largely panned by critics due to the scarce ingenuity in the level design, barely passible graphics, as well as some subdued attempts at humour that quickly stagnated along with the repetitive search and destroys missions. The subsequent games such as Chef’s Luv Shack and South Park Rally did not fare well either.  The creators themselves are even credited as wanting more involvement with the game licences but given rarely any opportunity.

In an attempt to buck this trend, Trey and Matt decided to directly approach Obsidian Entertainment for a potential South Park game that allowed them complete freedom to contribute to the game’s development. They wanted a game that accurately mirrored the world of South Park, including many famous landmarks and hangouts from the show, creating an inspired game that was in-keeping with the style of the show itself.  Fast-forward to March 2014 and what we get is South Park:The Stick of Truth.

South Park:The Stick of Truth borrows and pays homage to the formula of Japanese RPGs, most notably Paper Mario and Earthbound, but with western sensibilities which is reminiscent to South Park’s three part episode “Black Friday”. The game itself seems to take place just after “Black Friday” where the children of South Park are playing an outdoorfantasy game.

The over the top introduction narrated by the character Eric Cartman in itself sets the scene very well  and is a perfect mimicry of the 1978 Lord of The Rings animated movie and the 1981 film Heavy Metal.  It serves to encapsulate the imaginations of the kids of South Park, as well as being packaged as shorthand to display Cartman’s inflated ego. It also sets the stage for introducing the arrival of the main character, simply known as “The New Kid”.

The New Kid is essentially a blank slate for the player to insert themselves into the town of South Park. At the beginning you are given different character skins, hairstyles and clothes to create a representation of yourself in South Park form.You begin in your new home having just moved to South Park with your in game parents, acting suspiciously and secretive to the reasons of why they opted for the move.

After being brusquely kicked out of your house by your Dad, you meet up with Butters who you save from a kid playing an elf with one swift sucker punch.  Butters then leads you to the self-proclaimed wizard king Eric Cartman, monarch of the Kingdom of Kuppa Keep, aided by Princess Kenny alongside.  Here you are given the title douchebag and a choice of four classes; Warrior, Mage, and Thief and of course The Jew.  It is here you are told of the conflict between the humans of Kuppa Keep, who keep a powerful artefact called the Stick of Truth safe from the Drow elf faction (lead by Kyle and Stan) and you yourself become embroiled in the war. 

Once you have chosen your class, your gear and gone through the tutorials with a few metafictional gags, you are free to either follow the main quest line or explore the small Colorado town. The first noteworthy thing is how pitch perfect the overall aesthetic and presentation of the game is to the TV series, down to the shoddy construction paper look and nuances that imitate the workings of the show itself.  The navigation of the town can feel a little restrictive as your character can only move on the pavement where perspective is a fixed frontal view.  This however harkens back to the earlier episodes of South Park where they did not use rotational perspectives due to financial constraints and a lack of adequate technology.

The abilities, moves and attacks are implemented with alternatives from household items and junkyard rubbish to create makeshift weapons. The characters use wooden swords, hockey sticks, kitchen utensils, hockey gear, street signs as shields, as well as other unsavoury paraphernalia which is something that is not at all surprising to see in a South Park game.

The special abilities in the game use power points (similar to mana points) to be able to cast strong moves with a unique twist that reflects the job class you have chosen (the Jew’s first ability is known as “The Sling of David” described as “casting the first stone”). This also includes unique abilities from the chosen team mate which reflects their individual personality and shticks from the show. Eric can light his farts on fire, Kyle kicks his brother at enemies and Butters can summon his alter ego Professor Chaos into battle. This is  unapologetic South Park at its most pure, right down to the prominent use of farts in lieu of magic to both take down opponents or clear paths or obstacles outside of combat; a stark change to the previous entries. 

The combat itself is pretty simple. To be able to use each ability effectively you have to either click or press a particular key on the keyboard when the game prompts you to, in order to maximise or decrease damage potential depending on reaction.  The difficulty gradient in battles is really only truly measured by how well you react to the button prompts as well as how the player reacts to particular types of enemies.

 Enemies have various stances which a player must be aware of such as Riposte which counters your melee attacks or Reflect which counters ranged or magic attack.  Enemies can also be shielded   depending on their armour which can absorb attacks a selected number of times and requires a multiple hit attack in order to penetrate it. When the enemy attacks you it’s essential that you learn to time how to block through left clicking, which can reduce damage by half and determines if you survive an encounter or not. each of these stances/abilities have a counter and once learned the combat is fairly easy and mimics the idea of button sequences seen in Quick time events. This is something that seasoned gamers might find detracting from the game.

One of the key mechanics of the game is to gain perks to help improve your character in combat, which are gained by making friends on the game’s pseudo Facebook. This also serves as a menu screen for equipping new items, abilities and perks. The layout of the menu screen however can be slightly jarring at times, where particular options are not always readily apparent.

The content of the story is probably where the game shines through, and feels like playing an interactive episode of South Park.  As previously mentioned, the game can become very metafictional, parodying  current gaming treads such as the frivolousness of audio logs, inorganic dialogue trees of NPCS and the obsession of making Nazis or Zombies a focus as antagonists.

The plot and scenarios in game covers a large gamut of South Park’s style and stark profanity, rife with the same offensive humour most people are accustomed to from the show as well as including references from older episodes. Sometimes however this feels slightly novel, where  ancillary characters and events from old episodes are reimaged and repackaged  to work within the game’s continuity feeling like a re-tread of old material.  This is however neatly balanced with the game’s own unique narrative that tells its own story which culminates to some very memorable moments. A lot of the content is definitely not watered down and almost makes a point to be as offensive and off-colour as possible. If you’re not a fan of South Park or easily offended, it should be obvious that this title is not for you.  Three of the most memorable battles in the game really pushed boundaries and can easily offend someone with more sensitive dispositions. 

There are some scenes deemed so offensive that certain countries have censored a few key moments of the game. This move seems to contradict the ethos of the creator’s free speech policy as a whole; however it seems evident that there was no real work around. The digitally downloadable versions of the game do not seem to block out these scenes and players in regions where the game is censored can still play virtual copies uncensored. The more observational of fans will also notice quite a few flaws. While the map tries to tie most of TV series continuity into the game, there are still key locations missing, like the Raisins Bar, Hell Pass Hospital (admittedly on the outskirts of town) and Dr Mephesto’s Genetic Engineering Ranch. 

The side quests are also not as varied or in great supply and at times displays some surprisingly missed opportunities. It seems baffling that Mr Garrison was given so little exposure in the game as his depravity and outlandish weirdness would make for boundless material in the game.  It can be speculated by some that these omissions may be included in some form of extra downloadable content however this seems very remote.

You can also collect memorable items which serve as memorabilia from past episodes that you can sell however do not really serve beyond this. There are a few in-game memorabilia that can be used as weapons or armour, however most collectables have little purpose other than just being obligatory collectables and give little incentive for players to explore in search of them. As some of the items do take some effort to acquire it would have been interesting for them to be used to unlock a quest line or to unlock some sort of secret event.

Mechanics of the game in combat have a few broken elements also. When in combat if an enemy is riposting and on your turn you have no PP left or magic to attack you cannot switch out a character or miss your turn.  This forces you to melee, meaning inevitably you will have your attack parried while taking damage, for something that is unavoidable. This is a very big oversight by the designers and is a pretty basic mistake that should have been rectified early in development.

The game also seems to control how you level with level 15 being the level cap. There are a few battle instances you can encounter that are visible on screen and can be repeated by scrolling the screen away from location, entering a few new buildings or using Timmy’s Fast Travel option. Levelling from this method does seem excruciatingly slow however, as experience is more plentiful from battles occurring in the main quest line.The enemies also seem level alongside you  with no opponents above or below your own, creating a steady controlled gradient of character growth . This seems to take a massive RPG element out of the game, where levelling does not give you much of an advantage over enemies.

Despite having a few flaws, slight accessibility problems and little in the way of replayability, The Stick of Truth is a memorable experience that successfully breaks the mould of the prior South Park games. Trey  and Matt’s influence proudly shows itself within the game’s content,  and reflects a auteur approach to  their video game adaptation, with no holds barred humour and creativity that resonates with the show almost too perfectly. South Park fans will not be disappointed in this game.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

I haven’t got much Millage out of my DS which has started to collect more dust on it than my old tiger electronics power ranger game. A lot of the titles on the DS didn’t seem to appeal to me and while the console did have platform games, the more experimental titles, visual novels and pokemon titles seem to take up more shelf space in stores than any noteworthy platformer. The platformers usually available were either any given Mario reiteration seen dozens of times before or gimmicky titles such as Cooking Mama that do little other than to fortify  my gaming ennui. Meaning the DS rasion’d’etre for being part of my videogame collection was to satiate a Castlevania itch that the handheld itself didn’t have enough Castlevania games to help scratch.

I know it is largely unfair to throw the baby out with the bathwater, when there are loads of great titles that I have yet to play through, with great titles experimenting away from traditional gaming formulas  like ghost trick, and those sort of games aren’t inherently bad (in fact they are very good) but not quite in the same category as the solid platformers Nintendo were renowned for, beyond that dungaree wearing plumber. I am also aware that the technology available in the DS should veer away from 2-D titles in favour for games that cater to the capabilities of the machine itself and the interests of the current gaming crowd, yet a staple of Nintendo’s handheld systems is to include solid platforming titles. With a system that could better replicate the experience of the classic Super Nintendo platformers better than the Gameboy Advance could, it seems like a no brainer to also include a multitude of  platformers that replicate a genre  that arguably put Nintendo on the map.

What was to be salvaged from what little platformers were available were the three Castlevania games; Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia. While Dawn of Sorrow is considered the best of the three, much so that its totemic influence usually overshadows the other two, and Portrait of ruin is solid at its core but admittedly the weakest, the one you never seem to hear any accolades for is Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. This is surprising considering it’s the second strongest Castlevania games on the DS.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia takes place in the Castlevania timeline right after Symphony of the Night where a lull from any threat from Dracula has taken place resulting in little traces of any noticeable vampire slayer from the Belmont clan to take up arms should Dracula rise again. In the Belmont’s stead,  organisations have formed to research methods to counteract Dracula’s return and find effective means to combat him should his return come to fruition. One noteworthy organisation being the Order of Ecclesia, which utilize the powerful magic of the Glyphs known as Dominus, a magic that is replicated from Dracula’s power in order to be used against him and destroy his remains in order to prevent his resurrection. Shanoa is the game’s heroine chosen by the order to be a human vessel for the Dominus, a position that the order’s member Albus feels he is better suited for. Before the ritual of fusing the Dominus to Shanoa is complete, Albus steals some of the essence of Dominus, and steals the three glyphs necessary to complete the ritual. While only having a fraction of the Dominus’ essence absorbed and with the ability to absorb other Glyphs, Shanoa is tasked to find Albus and return the Dominus glyph to complete the ritual.

The first stark aspect of the game that deviates from the prior two instalments is the visual asthetic of the character design, and overall game , that attempts to revisit the old more adult design  reminiscent of the art style by Ayami Kojima. This is a refreshing return to form, considering the lush gothic visual overtones known in the prior titles was nixed in favour of  the newer “anime” standard instilled in Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin . I assume this abrupt deviation to an anime aesthetic was intentional to muster in newer more impressionable fans , and used anime influenced art styles to cater to younger audiences perhaps detracted by the more adult presentations of the erstwhile titles.

The environments in game also have a distinct design that, despite being set in the 1800s, has a very baroque style (mainly emboldened in Dracula’s castle), and sets itself apart from any other castlevania which are far more gothic. The graphical presentation is also very polished and boasts one of the best on the system. Even with the 2-D graphics the DS console itself has more than enough processing power to render non static backgrounds with some 3-D textures that are seamlessly incorporated into the 2-D foreground. These textures are non-intrusive and at times would not be easily discernible as 3-D upon first glance.

The enemy roster is also noteworthy and while the game includes memorable creatures from Symphony of the Night, it also includes new monsters into the mix. Each different monster has more distinctive elements to them particularly in their stats. One of the most noteworthy elements of this game is how each creature has resistances and weaknesses that are affected by weapon Glyphs and magic elements. These stats however are not just slight effectors but have a lot of gravitas to them, which seems more apparent than the prior instalments. This prevents players from curb stomping enemies with the highest attack rating weapon they have on hand and require them to interchange particular weapons over others in order to take advantage of weaknesses. Simply resorting to the strongest weapons can be ineffectual to enemies such as the Tin Man and Automaton,  making collecting varied Glyphs a much needed aid, rather than an added extra task  reserved for completionists.

Which moves on to the core innovation of the gameplay, the Glyphs. Each Glyph is its own weapon or magic ability that you can equip one each in the left and right hand.  This includes the stable weapons such as knifes, axes, rapiers and hammers, but also elemental magic like fire, ice, light wind and even things such as beam weapons.  The game also includes the union attack, which you combine both glyphs equipped to Shanoa into one deadly attack. The game also includes a massive variation of Glyph union combos with different Glyphs which, while some don’t always work, most do have their own unique effect and ability and is effective against certain types of monsters. There seems to be more of a need to find new Glyphs from each area and monster as opposed to being a novel inclusion and encourages players to search and explore each level to find a variation of Glyphs to make game progression smoother.

One of the first mistakes during my first playthroughs is that I thought that simply grinding levels would make overcoming particular stages and bosses easier overall. This wasn’t the case as I found myself stuck when fighting particular monsters and bosses as I only had a few weapons on hand and did not bother to search for weapons and elemental spells that were effective against these aforementioned creatures.  However upon my second playthrough where I took the time to search each level for new Glyphs I found that encounters with monsters and boss battles, were much smoother and felt less of a travail and struggle than my initial playthrough.

Glyph sleeves are also a very useful tool which allows you to conveniently switch between three pre-set Glyph equips, allowing the player to change to a Glyph set up swiftly to accommodate particular enemy resistances without cumbersome Glyph management through the menu screen.  This feature would have been nice if it was implemented in some way for armour and accessory equipment so the player is not required use the menu screen every time they want to boost the Glyphs abilities with a respective equipment load out. However the execution may have been difficult provided that most of the available buttons are used up.

The quest lines are a nice addition however with the exception of one or two pieces, most of the gear rewarded are quickly side-lined by incidental gear found along the way that surpasses the pieces obtained by quests, and therefore give quest obtained gear very little lasting value. There are quests that unlock new potions and items to cure particular ailments, however besides that items do not feel weighty in their value or do not confer decent enough statuses for them to be given any longevity or use in your equipment set. Some Quests like the photo quests from marcel do give a decent reward of money and are useful for items such as the miser ring which increases your stats depending on how much money you have.

The level layout is also very different from the previous games, where most of the first three quarters of the game takes place outside of Dracula’s castle. While this attempt to vary the formula and setting of the game is commendable in itself, the execution still has room for improvement. At its core the level designs do work and are fun to traverse, however the problem comes in exploration where each level is way to linear. Most each individual level can be completed fully from one single run and while there are certain parts that are gated until you have a specific item such as the Ordinary Rock, these are only a few instances, which usually consist of an item or two being unreachable, as opposed to an entire section of the stage being blocked off. Most levels themselves are linear corridors that unless you’re finishing the last part of an item quest or now have the relic item to access a particular i area, you will probably never have to see most of these levels again.

The level themselves are also very short which perhaps the biggest criticism of the game. Even when unlocking the true end levels of the game, the game feels way to short and with the exception of grinding levels and Glyphs, the game won’t take more than a few hours to complete.

Overall the game delivers the full Castlevania experience in spades, improving on Portrait of Ruin and also providing a challenge that will even take the more jaded veteran players off guard.