Category Archives: reviews

S. Darko review.

Say you’re in art school. There’s this guy and his friends, all untalented hacks, but they like to slap each other’s backs and exclaim how brilliant and creative they all are.

In general, quality abstract art takes a heck of a lot of ability to pull off well. A strong foundation in the basics, in lighting, perspective, color theory, anatomy — the better you know the rules, the more thoroughly (and skillfully) you can break them.

Now this guy, he doesn’t care about all that. He just knows that it looks a hell of a lot easier than realism. And besides, he might not be able to paint worth a damn, but he’s a brilliant creative guy, see, and abstract art would be just the way to show off his True Creative Burning Spirit without slogging through all the dirty work of actually learning how to handle a brush.

He sets out to build his masterpiece. He googles a bit, looks over a handful of Jackson Pollock pieces, eyeing the seemingly random cords and splatters of poured paint and color, the fame and notoriety of the artist, and says, I can do this.

And so he lays down his canvas, spread out across the floor, and begins. Instead of brushes and other tools, techniques for each that demand to be learned and mastered, he just flings colors wholesale from buckets, creating clashing and clumsy puddles that pool and seep into each other haphazardly.

And instead of paint, he uses shit.

That’s S. Darko.

Finished: Valkyria Chronicles

Some scattered thoughts.

Overall, the story was very well played, alternating heady realities and light-hearted JRPG fare. While the protagonists had a tendency towards preachiness early on, dialogue smoothed out as the game progressed and the real bulk of the plot began to come into play (either that or I simply got used to it).

The voice acting, often the bane of a translated release, is outstanding in Valkyria Chronicles. There are a couple weak spots — I’m looking at you Hans — but for such a wide cast of characters with dialogue, the quality is top notch. The members of Squad 7 (including the entire potential roster) each have unique personalities and mannerisms, and I felt myself honestly concerned with every casualty, especially those that led to the permanent death of a squad member in my campaign (RIP Ted and Nadine).

Add in the individual character designs, relationships, and biographies, and it becomes obvious that the folks at Sega Overworks (the Skies of Arcadia team) put a lot of care into crafting these guys.

Hitoshi Sakimoto, known for the soundtracks of two other notable strategy rpgs, wrote the score. Those Who Succeeded and Empty Loneliness are personal favorites from the collection.


Gameplay is solid throughout, and the mechanics were enjoyable enough that even the side missions, using variations of the basic ruleset, were a blast to play through. There are some balance concerns, most notably around the Scout class, but if you can restrict yourself from abusing your units (heh), the challenge is there from beginning to end.


Some interesting UI choices were made, with between-mission content split into two separate and distinct areas: Book Mode, and Headquarters. I’d love to see the internal progression of their design… I get the feeling that there were different teams involved for each, and some sort of development wall was hit (maybe resources, staff, time, whatever), as a few of the design decisions (go here, go there, go here, go there) are a bit clumsy. Still, the whole thing isn’t too unwieldy once you get the hang of it, and there’s always plenty to do (I’d generally reserve an extra 10 minutes at the end of a game session for housekeeping).


Total time invested was roughly 40 hours. In some games, I’ll often find myself almost grinding through to the end of a longer campaign, just to see out the storyline or for the sense of completion, but Valkyria Chronicles was enjoyable from start to finish. While I’ve moved on to other titles in the play list for now, I’ll eventually purchase the downloadable content and revisit the game. Maybe I’ll watch the anime, too.

Pick this one up. Valkyria Chronicles is a highlight of the current generation, and will be the sort of title folks bring up when reminiscing about the good ol’ gaming days of the late 2000s.

+ Beautiful hand-drawn art style.
+ Impressed by the time dedicated to creating unique and interesting characters.
+ Mostly excellent voice work.
+ Solid mix of missions within the basic mechanics.
+ Nice to see the realities of war brought into what is often a very fanciful game type.

Scouts were unnecessarily overpowered in the late game.
Tired and cliche “boss battle” ending.

Final grade: A

Finished: Mirror’s Edge

I really really wanted to love Mirror’s Edge.

I was sold by the original announcement — the pounding footprint EA logo, Lisa Miskovsky’s beautiful Still Alive, the bright colors and parkour-inspired gameplay… Here it was, EA’s big moment of redemption, part of their let’s make something new campaign, an opportunity to show that they could add to the art of video games, that, alongside Dead Space, they weren’t just sitting creatively idle, churning out sequel after sequel.

Unfortunately, the game is a mess.

Mirror's Edge

There’s a core of greatness buried in Mirror’s Edge, and for that alone it’s worth exploring, but the brief moments of awe are surrounded by tedium and frustration. The setting is fantastic — an urban romp through a colorful dystopian landscape — but the joy of exploration falls apart in the level design itself. I’ll accept the forced trial and error gameplay, but when combined with an imperfect contextual control scheme and widely scattered save points, the results were brutal. Many times I’d find myself elated to have crossed some difficult hurdle, only to screw up down the road and be thrown back to well before the tough bits, destroying the pleasure of progress and ratchetting up the aggravation meter. While some of the level layouts simply felt half-baked, thoughtful checkpoint placement might have lessened some of the duress. Yeah, the price would be a reduction in the overall challenge (and already short game length), but for a title that shines brightest when the player is in the flow, leaping over obstacles and along rooftops, it would’ve been a welcome tradeoff.

As I played through the game, I was hoping that the story, penned by Rhianna Pratchett, would be gripping enough to lure me through points of struggle, but the plot was ultimately another mundane enclosure for gameplay requirements, lacking the characterization, unpredictability, and oomph that a well-crafted tale displays.

Particularly mood-breaking were the cutscenes. With such a lush and beautiful in-game environment, why on earth did DICE resort to using a series of Flash-based segments? I’m guessing a lack of cinematic tools or a time crunch led to the decision, but man, was it a bad one.

Mirror's Edge cutscene

Anyway, after all this bitching, would it be wrong of me to say that I’m looking forward to the sequel?

+ Overall, a beautiful sense of style & art direction.
+ Novel, sometimes elegant control scheme.
+ Ooh, another great soundtrack.

Lousy save point distribution leads to seriously frustrating repeats.
The cut scenes… why?
Argh, I haven’t played a more frustrating game in years.
Solidly mediocre story. I was expecting more.

Final grade: C-

Finished: Planescape: Torment

With the sudden and dramatic red-ringing of my Xbox 360, and the couple weeks wait for a refurbished return, I took the opportunity to spend some time on the neglected portion of my play list, the PC games category. First up, the Black Isle AD&D classic with one of the worst cover designs in history, Planescape: Torment.

Actually finding the game was more difficult than it should have been. With services like Steam and GOG out there, why hasn’t this title been packaged in a tidy downloadable format? It may have something to do with the AD&D license or ownership, but Planescape: Torment is playable on GameTap (unfortunately in an unmoddable form), so someone has crossed that hurdle. Anyway, I came across a battered disc in the neglected software box in the garage, scrounged up disc two online, and was good to go.

The fan community surrounding Planescape: Torment is active, and in the decade since the game’s release, several patches and mods have been independently developed. Beyond the whole fixing bugs and typos thing, there’s a patch that completes and implements unfinished content, and another that enables higher resolutions and widescreen play. The overall improvement after installing the lot of ’em is striking, and really makes for a better gaming experience.

Planescape: Torment at 640×480:
Planscape 648x480

With the widescreen patch:
Planescape: Torment with resolution patch

Hell of a difference.

Now, even post-patching, Planescape still has elements that feel barren and unfinished, particularly those dealing with AD&D particulars. Aside from tattoos (which are treated like any other removable piece of gear, but usable by only a handful of characters) and jewelry, there is a distinct lack of wearable items, and by the game’s end, after days of play time, I still had characters in the party with empty equipment slots. The class differences felt shallow, possibly as a result of poor itemization, and the Thief class as a playable option probably should’ve been cut entirely.

More so than most other games, even within the genre, Planescape is a reader. Alongside the voluminous story-forwarding dialog and text elements, there’s a full journal of content that updates as the game progresses, and a myriad of dialog trees to be followed with each of your (up to five concurrent) party members. Unlike most other games, however, the writing is all solid stuff, and I was genuinely interested in the story progression, background, and relationships as I played.

The basic story treads a path that many others have worn beyond comfortable levels — powerful amnesiac who doesn’t know who or where he is (okay sure, it allows the player to learn as the character does), a wisecracking sidekick, and a mysterious big bad pulling the strings and generally making life difficult. The brilliant part of Planescape: Torment is how this was handled. Beyond the cliches, characters were well-developed, with unique qualities and individual motives and passions. The amnesiac story played out artfully with a satisfying culmination, and the fragments of memories and experiences peppered throughout the game gave it much of its color. And yes, as someone unfamiliar with the lore of AD&D’s Planescape, being given the opportunity to learn as the protagonist did was indeed helpful.

In fact, it’s the story that hoists Planescape: Torment above its CRPG siblings, causing one (at least after installing the community patches) to excuse any bugs or issues as minor quibbles. It really is a fun game to play, one of the best western rpgs to date, and well worth the effort to track down and get ahold of. Give it a run through if you haven’t, and let me know what you think.

+ Expansive dialog, deep characters, excellent story.
+ Good ol’ Infinity Engine gameplay.
+ Solid soundtrack by Mark Morgan.
+ The Planescape setting was a refreshing take on traditional AD&D fantasy stomping grounds.
+ Awesome patching support from the community. Thanks, guys!

Poor itemization, especially wearable equipment.
Buggy in stock form.
Still not a fan of the box art.

Final grade: A

Finished: God of Wars

Like many of the best of the PS2 era, God of War I & II are games that I’m embarrassed not to have played until now.

Upon completion, my first response was to be dismissive, to disparage the titles. I wanted to call them simply a violent Zelda with tits, the video game versions of a 1980s R-rated action flick, gratuitous strip club scene included. These games not only go over the edge of gore and T&A, they revel in it.

Then I realized, that’s the beauty of the series. God of War (here I’m referring to the series as a whole) takes the greatness and exaggeration of the mythology on which it’s based and goes nuts. Everything is big: the battles, the bosses, the characters, the swords, and the breasts. Nothing is subtle here, even the majority of Krato’s speaking parts are yelled out, and when not hampered down by camera issues and suspension-breaking platformer challenges, it all works.

When I play a game, the most evil you’ll see me ever take a character is maybe somewhere just shy of ne’er-do-well. I’ve admittedly got some sort of over-empathy thing going on, as just playing the role of an evil person makes me feel bad, and I find it unenjoyable. Now while Kratos isn’t evil, per say, he does have some serious issues, and there were a few points here and there that were just not fun to play (the man in the cage, for example).

Hmm, the whole game morality issue is a discussion in itself, so for now I’m just putting it out there that I found some of the situations off-putting.

The sequel, expanding on the bigger and badder of the series, takes the Kratos is a dick thing even further, although I’ll admit that battling mythological heroes was a blast. The Perseus fight, with its Harry Hamlin plucked straight out of Titans, was one of the highlights of the game.


Plus/Minus, God of War:
+ Holy crap this feels epic.
+ He’s a dick, but Kratos does seem legitimately badass.
+ Character designs and level architecture are a lot of fun.
+ Gives the player a bit more life each time a checkpoint is reattempted. Nice.

Camera is maddening, flip-flopping at the worst times and creating difficult angles of control.
Platformer puzzles without the platformer control. Ugh.
Overly complex controls, could’ve done more with less.
Quicktime events: not a fan.

Final grade: B-

Plus/Minus, God of War II:
+ The good points from above. More epic!
+ Colossus battle: hell of a way to start the game!
+ Controls felt much better in the platforming bits.
+ Impressive ending cinematic has me excited for the sequel.

Fodder battles became tedious.
Quicktime events: still not a fan.

Final grade: B