Saturday, November 29, 2014

#76: Assassin's Creed: Rogue: A Change in Perspective

All the Shin Megami Tensei games on my queue have been completed, for now. I think it is time to get back to basics with a true Press Start to Discuss column. Fortunately for me, Ubisoft has seen fit to continue their pattern of yearly Assassin's Creed releases. I do not know exactly what it is about that franchise, but it strikes the right balance between interesting game mechanics and noticeable flaws that it makes for extremely fascinating discussion, in my opinion. There are always lessons, both good and bad, to be learned from them. Now that Assassin's Creed: Rogue has been released, this week will be dedicated to analyzing it in my signature style. But before we begin, I would like to make clear that I am assume some level of general knowledge regarding the Assassin's Creed franchise. Further, this article will remain spoiler-free, since the game is still very new. Having said that:
One of the central premise of Assassin's Creed: Rogue is that it twists the typical dynamic of the franchise, where players typically take the role of a notable Assassin against the Templar Order. Rather, in this instance, the player character is someone who is trained as an Assassin. However, this character, Shay Patrick Cormack, later abandoned the Assassin Brotherhood after a series of traumatic events, joining the ranks of the Templars. Though parts of the game feels like any other Assassin's Creed adventure, particularly Black Flag, there are a number of ways mechanics are altered such that the player can feel what it is like to be a Templar, going against trained Assassins (aka Player Characters). It is these mechanical twists that I wish to discuss, because they provide the basis for how Rogue differentiates itself.

One of the first, and most obvious, way in which it does that is through the ambushes that are found throughout the open world. When exploring many of the major settlements in the game, like New York, players may begin to hear whispers from somewhere nearby. This is an indicator that an enemy is lying in wait for an ambush. Turning on Eagle Vision during this time will display a compass similar to the one from previous Assassin's Creed games' multiplayer modes. The compass points to the direction of the would-be predator. Getting closer to the enemy will result in the compass's arrow getting wider, and likewise in the reverse direction. Given this knowledge, the player must choose between staying away or trying getting the drop on their wannabe assassin. Failure to do either of these things will result in a successful ambush, and the loss in a great deal of health. Ultimately, this mechanic helps players understand just what it is like for Templars to walk around, constantly in fear of an assassin ambush. Traveling around openly becomes more difficult, and players need to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings.

The second inversion of mechanics exists in the sea-faring mechanics, which came right from Assassin's Creed: Black Flag largely unchanged. As was the case in Black Flag, performing illegal actions at sea will increase the player's notoriety, GTA-style. However, instead of bounty hunters going on the offensive, it will be Assassin vessels that pursue the player. Rather than engage in ship-to-ship combat, Assassin ships will ram into the player's ship, The Morgan, and attempt to board it. Though these enemies are just the same types of foes the player would fight on the high seas, they are given the distinct advantage. This is because the player is robbed of the initiative they would normally be afforded in a boarding section, unable to fire guns and pick foes off before the boarding process. Furthermore, the enemy stuns the player's crew during the attack with smoke, delaying the counterattack. The end result is a greatly increased chance for loss of crew members, heightening the danger of attacking ships in the open. As a whole, this offers a taste for what it is like to be on the other side of the boarding process.

Another interesting way that Rogue shifts perspectives on old mechanics is the Assassin Intercept side-missions. In previous Assassin's Creed games, starting with Assassin's Creed 2, there were a number of pigeon coops scattered throughout the open world. The courier pigeons within had messages which the player could use to activate optional assassination side-quests. Rogue changes this paradigm slightly. Since the protagonist is a Templar, not an Assassin, he has no reason to hunt down these targets. However, he has much reason to keep them alive. When he comes across a courier pigeon, he can capture it and steal the message written on it. At that point, the Assassination Intercept begins. Once the would-be target is located, Shay has a certain amount of time to kill all of the Assassins going after him/her before they begin their attack. If he fails, he will need to resort to defending the target as they are bombarded by all the remaining Assassins. Again, this is interesting because it takes an old mechanic and allows the player to experience it from a new viewpoint.

Even the assassinations play out differently than they usually do. In most Assassin's Creed games, the player will take a target unaware. In story, the intended victim is not aware that they are currently being pursued until the player reveals themselves. That way, the onus is on the player to plan out their approach so that they kill the given target and advance the plot. Rogue tends not to do this. More often than not, the Assassins that the protagonist goes after are well aware that they are about to be attacked soon. As a result, these encounters feel more like boss battles than anything. Each target has an ambush waiting for Shay, dependent on their expertise. It is up to Shay to overcome these ambushes, completing his objective.

And that ultimately ties into why Assassin's Creed: Rogue is so fascinating. The designers were not content to just allow players to go through the motions, just for the other faction. Rather, the mechanics are tailored to the concept of an Assassin going "rogue" and joining the Templars. It explores how the same tasks are different when taken from the another perspective. Even though the controls and overall framework are still the same as they were in Black Flag, the differences are enough such that the feel of Rogue is wholly unique in the context of the franchise. It is one of the more interesting explorations of alternate viewpoints that I have seen. While it will not attract new fans to the franchise, Assassin's Creed: Rogue does well to offer a fresh take on old concepts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 17: Ubi-bros

Unfortunately, Garrett wasn't feeling very well when we recorded this podcast, so he skipped out. He'll be back next week, but in the meantime the rest of us recorded our usual shenanigans... and called it an episode of The Texture Pop.

BTW, we also had no viewer questions this week. Don't forget to send yours in at .

0:00:00 Introduction
Anime discussions go on. I both show how much I know and how much I don't know about anime. Also, I hijack the host-gig to get this shit started.

0:04:20 Sam talks about some strange idea he got.
It sounds spoopy.
Then we discuss humping monitors?

0:08:30 We struggle to talk about gaming news.
Remember, we are a video game podcast. This should theoretically be easy.
We discuss new releases.
Jim Sterling going indie also came up in conversation, along with its potential implications.

0:17:50 Fuck it! Let's talk about Assassin's Creed: Unity (and start my turn).
It is amazing how it does some things very well, and other things so terribly poorly. It is worth noting though, that there is merit to AC: Unity. It's not irredeemable, but they really will need to step their game up in order to make up for this game's flaws.
Really, this conversation stands on its own. There is no need for me to add anything more to it. Besides, a Press Start to Discuss column will come out in the next few weeks about it, so I can discuss more then.

0:48:50 I also played Assassin's Creed: Rogue.
And if you enjoyed Black Flag, there is a high chance you'll like Rogue. In the way Unity draws much from AC2, Rogue draws much from Black Flag.
Aside from that, the plot is just so much more interesting in Rogue than it was in Unity, that I am surprised that this wasn't the main attraction.

0:59:30 Chris got Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.
And was tempted by Amiibo. After all, we know his history with Disney Infinity. Honestly, the Amiibo's seem pretty worthless to me. Then again, I've never been a huge Nintendo-guy.
On the other hand, the game itself is excellent. Not much more I can add to the conversation here.

1:24:30 Sam has been playing Far Cry 4.
It sounds to me, like FC4 fell victim to what seems to be Ubisoft's new business model. That model is "make the next game almost exactly like the last one, doing little to change things up". It's working, but I doubt it will be sustainable.
It's basically Ubisoft game.

1:41:15 Sam played Dragon Age: Inquisition.
I know I've repeatedly said that I hated Origins. However, if I am being honest, I am intrigued by Inquisition. What I've seen looks interesting enough to play on Easy. Again, I have not played it, so I comment no further.

2:04:00 Sam picked up a new Hatsune Miku: The New One.
And we talk about anime... again.

2:13:40 Wrapping Up.
And I talk about renovating cafes.
And don't forget:

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Impressions #20: Shin Megami Tensei IV

And now, we have reached the end of a long, long “Season of ATLUS”. After investing untold hundreds of hours playing ATLUS games and subsequently writing about them, we have reached the end of my queue. The last game in my list also happens to be one of the first I purchased for my 3DS: Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMT IV). Released in May of 2013, SMT IV attempted to bridge the gap between the classic feel of Shin Megami Tensei and the burgeoning market growing as a result of the success of the third and fourth entries of the Persona franchise. The end result is something that intriguingly shows how ATLUS has grown as a development house over the years.

As a Shin Megami Tensei game, many of the franchise staples have been brought back in full force. Players recruit demons into their party and use them to fight against other demons. The Press Turn System, which I have discussed several times before, makes a return as well. In order to make sure that the player party is as strong as possible, it is also necessary to regularly fuse demons together to create new ones. None of this will be surprising to anybody who has played an SMT game or read about them. These are classic elements one fans have grown to expect.
However, a lot of these elements have been retooled in order to improve the overall accessibility of the game. In particular, the fusion system received a huge update. Previous SMT games had the player go to a specific location in order to fuse demons together. They could also register demons in a compendium to be re-summoned later for a fee. When fusing, old games had a menu displaying all the demons possessed by the player, and it would display the expected result of the fusion. Skills inherited by the result would be semi-random, determined by a compatibility algorithm. Though serviceable, a lot of more casual players bemoaned how difficult is was to learn and master this mechanic. Since it was necessary to do this in order to remain stronger than the enemies, it was a valid complaint.
SMT IV greatly improves the usability of demon fusion, with the intention of giving players a greater degree of control. First off, instead of needing to go to a specific location, players can perform fusion at any time by accessing the main menu. The other major improvements is that the resulting demons skillset is determined by the player. Given the list of the demon's initial skills, and the list of every skill the parents know, players can select the skillset of the result.
Such changes are already a massive upgrade over the old methods, but the improvements extend further. Rather than having to laboriously go through every possible combination to figure out what players want to fuse together, SMT IV utilizes a search function. When the player enters the fusion menu, a list of options appears on screen. These choices all represent all the possible filters that can be used in the search. They range from the inclusion/exclusion of specific demons in the fusion, to specific races, elemental affinities, or skills. It is even possible to include demons from the Demonic Compendium in the list of fusion fodder. The results will be listed in the form of what demons can be made, given the current criteria, and the list of all combinations that will lead to each possible result. Once the fusion combination, and the result's initial skill set, have been determined, then the fusion will commence. As a result of all of these changes, players have a large degree of freedom in how their party develops, more so than in any SMT game before SMT IV. This turning away from random number generators in fusion grants great leeway in how the system works, and even unskilled players will quickly be able to make useful demons in this manner.

Other anti-frustration features include the ability to save anywhere, without needing to find a dedicated save point. At the same time, the game only gives the player two save slots, so some discretion must be advised on how often and where one saves their game. And even should players die in battle, that may not necessarily mean game over. For a small fee, the ferryman Charon will return the protagonist to the world of the living, just before they died. Should the fee be too high, it can be placed on a tab. Upon another death, if the player does not have enough money to pay off the current death, along with the tab, it will be a Game Over. The game is willing to give players leeway, when this is taken into consideration along with changes to demon fusion. However, because of that, it demands more from them in the middle of a fight.

While this is a very accessible SMT game, it is still an SMT game. Battles will often be decided quickly and decisively, thanks to the Press Turn System. Like in previous entries in the franchise, this system rewards smart play and punishes mistakes by giving or removing turns to both the player and the enemy. In order to further this reward/punishment dynamic, a mechanic was added called “Smirk”. If the protagonist or one of his demons exploits an enemy weakness (or blocks/dodges an attack), there is a chance they will smirk. When that happens, their attack power, accuracy, critical chance, and dodge rate are all greatly increased, and any attacks against their weakness are an automatic miss until their next turn. While this bonus is powerful, enemies and bosses can (and will) also gain smirk when they exploit the player's weaknesses. In this way, it becomes even more crucial for players to both discover and exploit enemy vulnerabilities while covering their own.
In any case, most battles, even boss battles, do not take very long. It is relatively easy to see whether or not the player is likely to win a battle by just looking at the state of the battlefield. It is interesting how the convenience features both have the potential to attract many new fans to SMT from the likes of Persona, while also having a chance to alienate them if they come unprepared. Likewise, classic SMT fans may pridefully scorn the convenience features, but enjoy how battles play out.

The story also has the potential to be equally divisive. While the actual story is not worth talking about too much, one of the important factors is that the player is regularly forced to make choices during dialog. Each of these choices shifts their alignment more towards Law, representing a desire to maintain the status quo, or Chaos, representing a desire to impose great change. The three companions that join the protagonist for most of the adventure each represent a viewpoint along this scale: One of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality. Whatever the player's alignment is at the start of the endgame will determine which ending is attained.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, as archaic as it is. However, the execution has a major flaw. Said flaw is that there are many events in the game, required to complete the story, that affect the alignment of the protagonist. For example, accepting one quest as a part of the main plot moves the player closer to Law. However, if the quest is refused, the quest giver will simply tell the player that they will be here if they change their mind. No progress can be made until the quest, and resulting alignment change, is accepted. On the whole, the sum of these events skews heavily towards Law, which means one practically needs a walkthrough in order to be Neutal. For Chaos, it is necessary to heavily commit to Chaos at the start of the game. Since, like most SMT games, Law and Chaos are both different forms of suck, Neutral is clearly the only good ending. This leads to a lot of needless frustration.
On top of that, the characters themselves rarely ever feel like nuanced, dynamic people. Even in the case of the protagonist's friends, most NPCs in the game act more along the lines of caricatures, designed to embody and spout their given life philosophies. For players used to the type of characterization seen in Persona 3 and Persona 4, this can be very disappointing. However, classic SMT fans will probably come in expecting this. Combined with the impact on alignment, the story is very hit-or-miss. I did not mind it, but nor can I say that I thought it was particularly good.

Overall, Shin Megami Tensei represents an intriguing and enjoyable compromise between the notoriously difficult SMT games, and the more approachable Persona games. As someone who enjoyed both, this was a game that entertained me thoroughly. The fusion system is, hands down, the best fusion system that has ever been in an ATLUS game, with a great combat system to boot. Having said that, it is not for everyone. Fans of one franchise looking to break into the other franchise, or those simply looking for an alternative to more slower-paced RPGs, will find themselves welcome. If you consider yourself in any one of these categories, I would strongly recommend giving this game a try. Who knows? It might hook you as much as it did me.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 16: *Skype Call Noises*

0:00:00 Introduction
My quote is courtesy of FF XII Fanfics. It's really one of the best thing I've seen on the internet.

0:01:50 Viewer Questions
For once, we got questions from multiple people. This means we're that much closer to being relevant.

"What is your favorite video game composer / video game soundtrack?"
I don't have much to add to what was said. I stand behind my answers.
     Jesper Kyd, for the soundtracks to the early Hitman and Assassin's Creed games.
     Shoji Meguro, for the soundtracks to... most PS2-era ATLUS games, particularly Persona 4 and Digital Devil Saga 1/2
     And last (but definitely not least) Daniel Korb/Ashley Barrett, for their AMAZING work on Bastion and Transistor.
There are a LOT of good video game soundtracks out there. Great question.

"What games that are either out right now, or coming soon, would you recommend [for the Wii U]?"
I recuse myself from this question.

"Have any of you guys played Terra Battle yet?"
In which I use this question to bitch about sponsored articles. Still, the game sounds interesting.

0:24:10 We discuss Sega and Sonic Boom.
And that's terrible.
But, this allows us to talk about Valkyria Chronicles, which is the good thing that Sega did in recent history. I'm so glad that people are enjoying it. After all, it's one of my favorite games on the PS3.

0:31:50 I have finally beaten Shin Megami Tensei IV.
An Impressions piece on the game will be released in the next few days. Until then, you've heard a lot about my thoughts on this game already.

0:38:15 I have beat playing Assassin's Creed: Rogue.
One thing that I find interesting about Rogue is that it flips some elements of the game, so that you get a feel for what it's like to be a Templar. We touched on that in the cast by talking about Assassin Intercepts and being boarded, but there is another way this happens. As you run around towns, there are assassins who are out there trying to kill you. So you play a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with them, trying to kill them before they kill you.
And then we spend a lot of time talking about the Assassin's Creed franchise.

0:44:30 I've been getting weirdly into Plauge Inc.: Evolved
And the Steam workshop makes it really, really fun to play.
Not much to say, although you can probably get it for cheap and its worth it for a few quick games.

0:46:25 Chris has been (disconnected)
Well... actually we all were. This is because my computer shut off (for a reason I won't discuss) and I was hosting the call. That's why it took me so long to reconnect to the conversation.

0:46:50 Chris has been (not) playing Hyrule Warriors.
And has been getting to his backlog.

0:48:08 Chris has been playing and enjoy Disney Infinity 2.0
And enjoying it.
We talked a bit about Chris Frankin's (aka Campster/Errant Signal) video on the game.
In short, Disney Infinity 2.0 really does address most of the complaints people had regarding the last version.

1:00:50 Garrett has been playing League of Legends.
And I really wish I knew more about League, because it would make my commentary more meaningful.

1:04:00 Garrett did a lot of things this week.
And he's going through them too quickly to comment on.

1:07:45 Sam has been playing Advanced Warfare
And he pressed E to pay respects, with Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey.
So... the story is about as derivative as it sounded.
Then we discuss many other shooters during this time.

1:16:35 Sam has been playing Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within
And The Evil Within earned his ire.
This led into an interesting discussion regarding how horror games elicit different reactions from different people, despite feeding them the same stimuli.
We also discuss stealth games afterward.

1:25:20 Sam played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
Enslaved is an interesting game, because it's not that fun to play. However, it is still very much worth going through at least once, just to experience the story.
It leads into a discussion regarding how games like ICO and Enslaved use mechanics to help players grow more attached to NPCs.
It's a game that requires a heavy-interest in story, and a willingness to overlook mediocre gameplay.

1:32:00 Sam talks about Valkyria Chronicles.
Which gives me a reason to bitch about Valkyria Chronicles 3 not coming to US.

1:34:30 Sam touched This War of Mine.
And we go into a conversation regarding setting up and violating expectation, and how that can impact the enjoyment one gets from a video game.
I remember an interesting study I saw on the Food Network once. In a supermarket, a man had people taste-test a product, calling it "Salmon Ice Cream." They hated it. When he tried again calling it a "Cold Salmon Spread" and putting it on a bagel, people changed their tune.
When it was labeled "ice cream", people expected something sweet. When that's not what they got, they were disappointed. On the other hand, the different label set up correct expectations, so people were pleased. In terms of games, this might go far in explaining why we all felt disappointed by what This War of Mine turned out to be. Like Dead Island, they set up expectations incorrectly.

1:39:00 Sam played Dragon Age: Origins.
In preparation for Inquisition (which is out, as of the time of this episode's release).
Which makes us talk about Dragon Age. I've gone on record saying how much I dislike Dragon Age.
To be clear, Inquisition wasn't out when we recorded this. This is all speculation based on revealed information.

1:44:15 Sam tried to play more Bayonetta 2.
And we talk about it's few flaws.

1:46:00 Chris brings up Adonisus's question about Shonen Jump.
Sam tells us a story about his first time with Shonen Jump, and his plunge into weeaboo-ness.
Anime gets discussed.

1:55:30 Wrapping Up.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 15: Floppy Devil Dick (and Minor Site Update)

BTW, because I have been extremely busy these past few days, there will not be another article posted on Saturday. I apologize for this. Having said that, onto the usual shenanigans.

0:00:00 Introductions
And you get a glimpse of what it's like behind the curtain.

0:01:55 Viewer Questions
From our usual source:

"Why do so many people seem to hate Skyward Sword?"
Like I said during the cast, my opinion on the matter is purely a matter of speculation. Having said that, what I strongly suspect was the case is that the new style of play greatly affected the design.
It's a problem you see in games like Deus Ex and Dishonored. Since the design can't assume that you have certain items in your inventory (because you may or may not have any given item), it needs to be theoretically possible to beat without using any of the equipment they may or may not have obtained. They can be used to make your task easier, but it must still be possible to complete it without any of that optional equipment. Previous Zelda games make players feel like they are building their character's power over time. With this type of design, that is much more difficult to pull off.
Of course, other issues like unresponsive controls and an annoying side character would also be contributing factors, but I would posit the fundamental change in game design is the primary reason.

"Did any of you guys read Shonen Jump back in the day?"
Of man, I wish Sam was present for this discussion. He would be able to provide a more interesting conversation than either me or Garrett.

0:11:45 Chris brings up Dawngate (and its cancellation)
Though I would hardly call myself an expert, I can hardly call this surprising. The MOBA space is super competitive, and you need to make yourself stand out if you want to do well.
For the record, the incomprehensible blurb that came out of my mic was me jokingly referencing The Old Republic.

Then, we start talking about MOBAs in general. And the call dropped in the middle of our conversation.

0:23:20 Chris beings up Blizzard's new shooter, Overwatch.
After you get over the initial wave of "THIS GAME LOOKS AWESOME!", and you stop to analyze it, you wonder how good this game will be.
Blizzard has never made a shooter before. Further, this is a multiplayer-only, character-based shooter. Beyond that, the last game with such a colorful-looking initial trailer was Overstrike, aka FUSE.
This could do well, but on paper it looks like it's almost destined to fail, once you get passed the initial shock. On the other hand, Blizzard has a proven record for turning anything into a gold mine. I will be interested in how it develops over time.

0:33:30 Garrett plays Neotokyo.
Which sounds like a very fascinating Source mod. Unfortunately, I cannot comment any further.
And of course, ANOTHER Destiny reference. We're the best Destiny podcast on the interested.

0:46:00 Garrett has been getting into SMITE
And talks about how it blatantly steals from League.
Then, we discuss Adam Sandler movies. I'm not sure why.

0:56:05 I have been playing more Shin Megami Tensei IV.
And I have gotten to the point where the difficulty curve begins to level out. SMT fans know about this point, but I explained it a lot here.
I didn't say this during the cast, but I think part of why I have been enjoying the side-quests is because the game does a great job of making them available and easy to access. All you need to do is drop by a tavern every once in a while to see what's come up on the bulletin board.

0:59:50 I have been playing Binding of Issac: Rebirth
It is a major improvement over the base game in so many little ways that I really recommend it to anyone who played the original. There's also so much more content added to the game that the higher price is justified. No matter which system you get it for (PC, PS4, or Vita), you will definitely be getting your money's worth.
Having said that, it is not a game for everyone. If the old game wasn't great for you, this probably won't change your mind unless your issues were mostly technical in nature.

1:12:45 I played my first game of One Night Ultimate Werewolf.
For those who want to know more, you can watch Table Flip play the game here.

1:15:50 Chris has played more Hyrule Warriors
And we didn't talk much about it because Sam was absent.

1:18:45 Chris bought a copy of Dante's Inferno.
And I apologize to him on his behalf. No one should be subjected to that game.
On the positive side, it made the title for this episode very, very obvious. (I still think "Satan's Dick and Tongue Nipples" should have been the title, but we still chose very well.)

1:31:20 Wrapping Up
Remember, send us stuff at if you want us to talk about you on the air.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Impressions #19: Soul Calibur 2 HD

So, how did this happen? How did I go from talking nearly nonstop about Shin Megami Tensei games to an HD remake of a PS2-era fighting game? Well, I remember playing Soul Calibur II a lot as a child, and the HD remake went on sale for $5 on PSN. It really is that simple. Placing my “Season of ATLUS” on hold temporarily, I decided to take some time to reconnect with the game, looking at it from a modern perspective. In light of recent trends in fighting game releases, Soul Calibur 2 is actually a nice breath of fresh air, aging surprisingly well. This week, I will tell you why that is.

First released in 2002 for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and original Xbox, Soul Calibur II is the direct sequel to what many had considered to be one of the best games on the Dreamcast. The basic premise of the game is that there are two very powerful swords. The first is an evil sword named Soul Edge, which takes over its wielder and devours the souls of those it kills. The second is a holy sword named Soul Calibur, which is constantly at odds with its evil twin. Fighters from all over Europe and Asia covet these blades for various reasons. Some seek to possess them, others to destroy them, and so on. This sets the stage for all of these warriors to travel across the world and fight each other over these weapons.
Each of the various consoles had a guest character join the cast as well. Tekken's Heihachi Mishima made his cameo on the PS2, since Tekken was a major Sony-exclusive at the time. Nintendo gave permission to allow Link to make an appearance in the GameCube version, because he is the most logical Nintendo character to bring to a 3D weapon-based fighter. As for the Xbox, they got Spawn because Namco and Todd McFarlane really needed to get out of that contract they had with each other. (That is not a joke.) The HD rerelease of the game, released in 2013 for both the PS3 and the 360, brought both Heihachi and Spawn to the game. Link was not present, since there is no way Nintendo would allow it. A bit of shame, since he was obviously the best of the three, but understandable.

As for the game itself, it is still as fun to play as ever. One of the things that I enjoy about the Soul Calibur series is that the mechanics themselves are relatively easy to understand, compared to other fighting games. Most of the commands are generally simple to pull off. In general, spending ten minutes or so with a given character will teach a player the basic gist of that character. Some fighters are obvious more or less difficult to use than others, but on a fundamental level it has more to do with the properties of their attacks and how their combos work, and less to do with the execution of any one move.
It is also nice to play this game when taken into context with its sequels. Many franchise fans, myself included, would say that it was the series's pinnacle. Soul Calibur III was not a bad game, but it did feel a bit like a step back. Because each character had more health, fights took longer. Furthermore, the discrepancy between the power of each individual fighter felt significantly greater. Soul Calibur IV added in the Soul Gauge mechanics, which punished more defensive playstyles. Players who continue to block attacks would get broken, which allows the aggressor to perform an instant kill. The power differences between characters in Soul Calibur III were also felt in IV as well. The ultimate culmination of this downward spiral was Soul Calibur V. SC V turned the franchise into a low-rent Street Fighter IV clone with swords. Everything about that game was awful and better left forgotten. This is one of the few franchises where “Taking a few steps back” is actually a really good thing, and Soul Calibur 2 HD best demonstrates why this is the case.

The other great aspect of Soul Calibur II, that in hindsight makes it such a great game, is its vast stores of single-player content. Weapon Master mode, with the possible exception of the campaigns in either the Mortal Kombat reboot or Injustice: Gods Among Us, is what I would call one of the best single-player campaigns in the history of fighting games. It puts the player directly into a story where they are a warrior seeking Soul Edge. During the journey, the player undertakes a series of missions, each taking the form of a battle. As they progress, they unlock new characters, weapons, and modes to play with.
However, these are not just typical battles more often than not. Usually, special conditions will be imposed on the battle. It is these constrictions which inject variety into the campaign. For example, one mission will make it so that the enemy will only take damage while he is in the air, but he will fall at a slower rate when launched upwards. Another mission will make the enemy invisible, with the exception of his weapon. Not only do these requirements add to the variety, they help teach players about the many mechanics of the game in a non-competitive, relatively safe space. Since the difficulty of these missions greatly increases the more players progress, it is safe to say that someone who gets through it all, while maybe not be the best player out there, is equipped to hold their own against other players.
Even outside of Weapon Master, there is still much that one person can do to get more out of the game. Arcade Mode is standard to fighting games, but there also options like Time Attack, where the goal is to fight through every character as quickly as possible. Other modes include Survival Mode, where players see how long they can last in a series of matches, with only limited healing between each match. Team Battle allowed players to form up to 3 character teams to fight in a series of one-on-one matches, where team members would fight in sequence. VS Team Battle allowed two players to pit teams of 8 against each other. “Extra” versions of these modes even allowed players and enemies to use the weapons unlocked in Weapon Master mode in battle. All in all, even someone who cannot regularly play with friends can get much out of the game.

While Soul Calibur 2 HD is still really good, it is far from flawless. For example, although the game now offers online play, and the net-coding is solid, it feels extremely limited. It is only possible to engauge in standard versus mode online, meaning players can only go against friends one-on-one, without using any weapons they unlocked. For a game that has such a diverse set of weapons for each cast member, and so many different modes of play like Team Battle, this comes off as overly simplistic and downright disappointing. I was hoping that my friends and I would be able to create our teams of characters and go against one another with our own custom assortments of weaponry. It would make sense to have Ranked matches be this limited, but when playing Unranked, these options would have been greatly appreciated.
Further, while the balance is much better here than in the sequels, there are some noticeable balancing issues. The people who originally purchased Soul Calibur 2 for the Xbox must have been really disappointed by Spawn. Now that I have had the chance to play him in the HD remake, I am astounded by how bad the character is. Unlike Heihachi and Link, who both fit in well, Spawn feels so much like an afterthought that I am honestly left dumbfounded. There had to be some other character they could have used. Along these same lines, the character of Necrid, who was also designed by Todd McFarlane, is also pretty terrible. Whoever in Project Soul worked on these characters seems to have a grudge against McFarlane, because his characters are some of, if not the worst in the game.

Overall, Soul Calibur 2 HD is a great game for both newcomers and veterans to the fighting game genre. Compared to many other fighters, it is very easy to learn. On top of that, there is a wealth of content available for single-players. I am sure there are those who would disagree with me on this point, but Soul Calibur 2 is my favorite fighting game. The HD remake does well to bring the game to more modern consoles. It is definitely worth your time and money.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 14: You've Got (New) Mail

Another week, another Texture Pop podcast. This week, we attempted, and mostly succeeded, at keeping it at a manageable length.

Also, for those of you who are unaware, Sam has also been much better about posting the MP3 versions of the podcast. You will usually be able to find links to them in the descriptions of the videos from here on out. For those of you with long commutes, it might be a good idea to get some quality(?) audio entertainment.

0:00:00 Introduction
Sam lovingly lampshades my minor misanthropic tendencies.

0:00:55 Viewer Questions

"I bought a Wii U and have been playing Hyrule Warriors too. My only complaint about the Wii U is its battery life."
I don't know enough about it to comment beyond what we discussed.

"Brandon, have you ever played Shadow Hearts?"
Definitely. When I was in middle school, a close friend introduced me to the franchise. I wish another one was in the works, but I'm content with the three games that were released. For anyone looking for a quirky, unique JRPG experience, Shadow Hearts is a great game. They are also very unique in terms of settings, because if memory serves, the first two took place immediately before and during WW2, and the 3rd game takes place in Prohibition era America.
A bit of warning though: While the franchise is known for having a sense of humor, the actual story tends to get very, very dark. People who dislike more mature, dark themes may want to watch out.

0:15:15 Chris brings up Avengers 2 (and Marvel's plans)
And we all agree that it's AWESOME!
DC still sucks though, at least in terms of movies. We also learn a lot about comics in this segment.

0:29:40 I played Shin Megami Tensei IV
I haven't finished it yet, but it is interesting to compare this game to previous entries like Nocturne. Through it is significantly more user-friendly than Nocturne, as an example, SMT IV is feels a lot harder than Nocturne did.
At the same time, this difficulty is almost like a Dark Souls game, where it is designed to both reward skillful play and punish those who do not learn their lessons.

0:38:10 I played Soul Calibur 2 HD.
It is really nice to play what I consider to be my favorite fighting game of all time again. Compared to a lot of other fighting games, I have found that SC 2 is much more forgiving to new players than other fighters. While it has issues, it is great for both single and multi-player oriented play sessions.
Also, another reason I love the game is that, through mission variety in the single-player mode, it teaches you all you need to know about the mechanics. Weapon Master mode really is one of the best I've played in a fighting game.
This gave me license to bitch about both Soul Calibur V and Lost Swords, which were both some of the worst fighting games I've ever played. I could not stand those games, and would never recommend them.

0:49:00 We wait for Garrett to get back so he can talk about League.
Please stand by for technical difficulties. Also, this might have been our first warning.

0:51:00 Garrett has been going to Best Buy to look at computer parts.
And I just let Sam and Garrett talk about a subject I know little about.

0:54:00 Garrett played the Evolve Alpha.
While I am interested in Evolve, I take this time to bitch about the game industry misusing the words "Alpha" and "Beta" incorrectly.
Then, we actually discuss the Alpha.

0:56:30 Garrett talks about Curse Chat?
Which leads to us discussing audio software... while we are recording an audio podcast... on Skype.

0:59:55 I get Sam to explain the title of the last episode 
Because I had no idea where it came from.
"I can't explain Spoopy. I can't even attempt to." - Brandon Carey
"[Spoopy] sounds like something my mom would say."- Brandon Carey

1:02:50 Chris has been playing more Hyrule Warriors
And it's definitely.... a conversation.

1:07:15 Chris was playing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.
The bottom-line is that it is more Borderlands. If you like Borderlands, you will like the Pre-Sequel. Otherwise, you won't care. There isn't anything radically new enough that your opinion on the matter can be swayed.
As for me, I could barely tolerate Borderlands 2. I really liked the friends I played with, the writing, and the characters. However, the act of playing in a session of Borderlands is just so painfully dull to me. Because of this, I have no reason to pick up the Pre-Sequel.

1:25:50 Sam thinks he's been working, but isn't sure.
I did not know Halloween was so busy for a pizza shop. The things you learn.
Though his shift was much worse than anything I faced, I certainly know the pain of a last minute customer. "That guy" is always a dick. Nobody likes "that guy."

1:30:50 Sams tells us about politics in fan-subbing anime.
And I've never thought about this before the recording.

1:32:50 We talk about talking about games with friends and strangers.

1:35:30 Sam talks about The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation.
I mentioned Errant Signal's episode on Alien: Isolation, which can be found here. I would recommend watching it if you haven't already. The comments made regarding the feel of the game and its use of save systems to invoke emotions is interesting.
I think it speaks wonders to how much more engaging a game can be when the player does not feel almighty, like most games are want to do. Limiting player power can lead to much more creativity, which can make a game so much more interesting when done correctly.
One thing that comes to mind now, when I think about how save systems make you feel is Hitman: Blood Money. Though you can save anywhere in a mission, you only have a finite number of saves (unless you play on Easy). Harder difficulties limit this even further. In this way, saves are just as much a finite resource as your other tools. As a result, you need to plan your use of them in much the same way you plan for everything else. To some, this detracts from the game. To others, it adds to it.

1:41:45 Sam bought Lords of the Fallen.
Which further adds to our save game discussion from earlier.
It's also a good game for Sam to talk about more than me, since he's much more familiar with Dark Souls.

1:45:50 Sam teases his Wii U discussion for next week,

1:46:15 Wrapping up.
My Nocturne impressions are here.
Our e-mail is also , so please send us your questions, comments, and feedback.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Impressions #18: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

Lately, I have been going back and playing old Shin Megami Tensei RPGs that I, for various reasons, missed back in the day. Dubbed the “season of ATLUS” by yours truly, this has been dominating much of my free time. The most recent game I completed in this process is Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Released in 2003, Nocturne (Lucifer's Call in Europe) in pretty infamous in the JRPG community, with a very noticeable cult following. Like other SMT games, it has cultivated a reputation for difficulty. Though some will find it more or less difficult than others, my experience lends more credence to this reputation than other SMT games that I have played.

But before we get into any of that, I want to take a minute to discuss the game's plot and premise. A shadowy organization has decided that the current direction taken by humanity has resulted in a bleak and depressing existence. To that end, they take steps to end the world, using it as a basis to form a new one, in an event referred to as The Conception. This is where the protagonist comes in. The player assumes the role of a Japanese high school student who, by some blunder of fate, managed to survive The Conception. Afterwards, Lucifer (Yes, THAT Lucifer) takes an interest in him, and implants in him what is known as a Magatama, a parasitic life form comprised of pure demonic power. As a result, the protagonist is transformed into a half-human, half-demon entity called the Demi-Fiend.
In the Vortex World created by The Conception, demons are allowed to roam freely. There are only a few lucky humans who remained alive. It is these humans who have the ability to create the new world. In order to do this, certain steps need to be taken. First, they must resolve themselves to a philosophy on which the new world will be based on. This Reason, as it is known, can be taken from another person or conceived as an original belief. Then, enough creation energy must be gathered by them in order to summon a deity, to represent that Reason. After every represented Reason has battled it out, the winning belief will be used to create the new world.
Since the protagonist is a demon, he cannot create a Reason of his own. However, he is free to choose to support or oppose any Reason that has already been established. The player, in this capacity, will determine which, if any, of the Reasons will emerge victorious. Through the choices made, and the alliances formed, they gain and lose reputation with the various three factions, each representing their own Reason. At the end, it is this which determines whether or not the protagonist is in support of any Reason. Should the player decide to reject all three reasons, then their personality, as represented by their choices, is what will determine the new world.
While this may have been an interesting concept in 2003, most modern gamers are already extremely familiar with the concept of narrative choice. It worked, but it honestly was not all that interesting. This was from a time when such ideas had been relatively unexplored, so this is to be expected. Still, people playing Nocturne from a modern perspective might find this whole plot disappointing. Even the characters are not really that well written. Most of them are jerks and most of them have absolutely no reason to be. The story had potential to go in some really interesting directions, but failed to do so. Ultimately, while there are some interesting elements, the plot is mainly used to justify the gameplay and dungeon crawling, barely able to stand on its own.

As for the combat, SMT: Nocturne was the very first game to utilize the Press Turn System that most SMT games would come to utilize at some point. I have already detailed the basics of this system in my Digital Devil Saga Impressions articles. Playing this game, it becomes apparent that this is only the start of a system that would be greatly refined and reinterpreted in many ways. Unlike Digital Devil Saga, turn order is determined purely by the Agility stat, with the fastest going first and so on. Further, the combination attacks that proved so useful in Digital Devil Saga were noticeably absent here. Aside from that, I have discussed the system enough, and have no real need to talk more about it. Nocturne served as a great proof-of-concept for the system, which would later become a fundamental groundwork for combat in ATLUS RPGs.

Another interesting note of comparison lies in the way character and party development works in Nocturne, compared to other SMT games. Unlike Digital Devil Saga (but like most), the player party consists primarily of demons. In order to get these demons to join the party, it is necessary to negotiate with them. During the course of the battle, on the turn of either the protagonist's or a demon with a conversation skill, the player can attempt to talk to a demon in the enemy party. In the first phase of the conversation, the player will need to convince the demon to like him. Should that be a success, then the demon will make requests. Appease it, and it will either join the player, give an item, or retreat from battle. Failure will result in an enraged demon, causing the enemy's turn to start. In this way, there is always an element of risk involved with negotiations. Mitigating and accepting this risk by eliminating enemies before striking up conversation is as important as the actual act of talking.
Having said that, the demons gained through conversation are still pretty weak. The true way to gain a powerful party is through Fusion. At special locations referred to as Cathedrals of Shadow, the player can combine two demons into a new one. The result will have their own skills, but will also inherit some of its predecessors'. During specific times, a Sacrificial Fusion can also be done. Along with the original two demons, a third can be sacrificed. Depending on the strength of the third, the result will rise in power. Skills from this final demon can also be inherited by the result. Like in other SMT games, this process of Fusion is the key to maintaining a strong party throughout the game.
However, there are elements that clearly demonstrate the dated nature of this particular beast. For example, as earlier SMT games were known to do, Nocturne tends to rely far too heavily on random number generators. The specific skills that a fused demon will inherit is determined by a roll of the dice. I often found myself deselecting and reselecting fusions over and over in order to attempt to get the skills I wanted on my party member. Old SMT gamers probably will not mind that. On the other hand, people who have grown accustom to selecting inherited skills in games like Persona 4 Golden might be less inclined to go back. For better or worse, it is a very noticeable throwback.

As a demon, the protagonist also develops his own skills, albeit at a much faster rate than others. However, he does it differently. Throughout the game, players will acquire different Magatama, which confer different resistances and skills to the protagonist. Upon level up, should the protagonist be at a sufficient level, he will learn a skill from the Magatama. Like other SMT games, only 8 skills can be equipped at a time. To learn a new skill, one of the previous ones needs to be forgotten. Unlike Digital Devil Saga, there is no going back. Once a skill has been unequipped, it cannot be relearned. This can often result in making difficult decisions, because making the wrong choices on not only what skills to keep, but in what order they are learned, can quickly put the player at a disadvantage. The freedom to choose from any previously learned skills did not yet exist. Again, the dated-ness of the design very clearly shows.

And that is the ultimate problem with Nocturne. While it was a fantastic game at the time, and still continues to be very fun, it has been succeeded quite thoroughly by later works from ATLUS. It is a game that over 10 years old. Showing that age, it serves as an interesting data point to compare other JRPGs with. Moreover, classic SMT fans, eternally looking for challenging and varied battles against demons, would be well served playing Nocturne. I myself would be lying if I said that I hated the game. I enjoyed my 60 hour playthrough. Though a second playthrough seems unlikely, I would not completely rule it out. That said, people who have come to know the modern conveniences of ATLUS design in games like Persona 4 Golden might be put off from the old school design philosophies that went into it. This is what one would refer to as a “niche” game, even by ATLUS standards. Keep that in mind if you intend to try it out.