What’s Next? – Short Blog

The day I started writing for Destructoid as staff was a dream come true. The culmination of years of studying, writing and honing my skill, finally publishing a review for potential millions to see was enough to bring me to tears. I had achieved the goal I set out for myself all those years ago.

Then a few months later, reality crashed into me. I had been working as a per diem employee at a homeless shelter when a very unfortunate incident happened. I ended up losing my job due to management’s decision right before December. While becoming unemployed at any point is unfortunate, doing so right at the peak of the holiday season is disastrous.

I wasn’t completely up shit creek, money wise, so I decided to start fresh at the beginning of the New Year. I would have the best possible chance to get my resume seen if I applied while employers were actively looking for new recruits. Sadly, as of the time of this writing, I am still unemployed. The magnitude of my situation at the homeless shelter has finally sunk in and I realize that I’m going nowhere and fast.

You’d think achieving two dream positions (working directly to help people and being a video game “journalist”) would see me elated, but that isn’t the case. I’ve slowly been running out of money and nothing seems to help. I’ve tried being an Uber driver, but apparently there aren’t a lot of people in Connecticut in need of chauffeuring. I’ve been constantly putting out applications, only to get rejections from basically everyone (including an unpaid internship!).

A few years back, I found myself in a somewhat similar situation. I left a job with my friend’s dad to obtain a personal training certification, which I successfully did. After that, I started on the job hunt only to get nowhere. Employers wanted me to have previous client bases while individual people wanted me to have experience in training. It was a ridiculous catch 22 that I couldn’t find an answer for.

Still, to this day, I cannot obtain work at any commercial gym. It makes me wonder what the value of education is. I took a big risk and it failed, but why did I even do that? I wanted a change of careers to something I enjoyed, but I guess that is too much to ask of the world. It feels like all of my choices are wrong.

Really, what is next for me? I’m 29 years old, sitting at home wasting away and getting nowhere in life. I don’t have money to return to school, I’m slowing depleting my funds on medicine and cellphone bills and I have little to show for it. It’s great that I’m able to engage with the gaming community on a larger level, but that doesn’t pay the bills. Why does everything have to come down to the almighty dollar?

How do people cope with the realization that their lives are nothing? When all you do is wake up, go to work, come home, eat and sleep, what is the point of life? Is there no possible career option that allows me to simultaneously enjoy what I do and earn a living? While I am always going to be grateful to Destructoid for giving me the chance to finally live out my aspirations, it’s looking more and more likely that I’ll never be able to turn this hobby into a job.

It hurts so much to write that, but it is the truth. I’m lost in a state of arrested development and I’m not sure how else to proceed. I just want to become something important to the world, but that doesn’t seem likely. For me, toiling away in obscurity until I inevitably die might be the only path.

Really and truly, I am just looking for possible options. Where is the flaw in my logic? What is preventing me from becoming successful? How do I accept reality and become a mindless drone? How do other people manage to find consistent work that lets them be independent?

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What JRPGs should learn from Final Fantasy IV

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For anyone who has read my recently posted review of Dragon Ball Fusions, you’ll note that I closed out my piece with a little tangent about how I disliked modern JRPGs. I’m not sorry I wrote that, as I feel it helps one understand my frustrations with Fusions. The game does literally nothing to break the typical mold of JRPGs and it suffers for that.

One thing that seems to be misunderstood is my attitude towards the genre, as a whole. I don’t dislike every JRPG ever made, just most of them after Chrono Trigger. As a matter of fact, I’m going to now explain why Final Fantasy IV’s remake is one of the best examples of the genre and how Fusions and Bandai Namco could (and should) learn a thing or two from Square Enix’s past.

The opening of Final Fantasy IV immediately breaks the stereotypes of the genre. You aren’t playing some prophesized hero on a quest to save the world from an ancient evil; you’re a man who begins to question the morality of the orders he is being given. That insecurity leads to you being stripped of your position and sent on a tedious (and ultimately terrible) mission.

After falling from grace and hitting rock bottom, Cecil (the main character) vows to travel the world and help others in need. This goal thrusts him into an adventure that has a few twists and turns and introduces an incredible cast of characters along with some innovative and thrilling combat mechanics.

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With age, I’ve grown to understand why people enjoy turn based RPGs. Having that layer of strategy and tactics play out in a manner with which you are given limited control is an extra challenge on top of any difficulty selection (with which the remake of Final Fantasy IV offers two options). You can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy and any mistakes lead to emergent gameplay in the style of damage control. Failure to come back from the brink of death leads to a game over, but succeeding brings an incredible sense of accomplishment.

The thing is, most modern JRPGs do very little to distinguish each of their battles. Dragon Ball Fusions, as a matter of fact, is basically the same exact game for 90% of its playtime. You can approach every single battle with the same team of people and never even come close to losing. Some side quests offer up variety, but holding victory to different stipulations shouldn’t be relegated to optional content. A game should be challenging the player every step of the way.

Final Fantasy IV does exactly this. The default difficulty definitely makes things easy, but you are constantly faced with enemies that have weaknesses to different magic attacks or require you to play defense with certain characters. A lot of the bosses are resistant to magic or physical attacks and the rotation of your party members help switch up tactics without lecturing the player with dialog boxes.

Even the animations of the enemies can clue you in as to what needs to be done. One of the main bosses, Rubicante, will move his cape and that lets the player know physical attacks are now diminished in effectiveness. Of course, the only way to discover this is by trying things out, but the game gives players the freedom to learn these nuances on their own instead of throwing an utterly baffling amount of information at the player and then hiding important details in a “tips” menu.

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Then there is the active time battle system, which forces you to think on your feet. Sure, the characters won’t be moving on their own and everyone goes in a turn, but failing to select an option within a reasonable time limit will grant the enemy a chance to retaliate. You can’t just sit around and think forever, something that modern JRPGs have regressed back to.

One of the coolest additions to the remake (and even the PSP port) is the auto battle option. Grinding was worked into the design of older JRPGs because of the lack of technology powering them. Making a long and meaningful game on the NES was an arduous task without raising the difficulty. While removing grinding would have been preferable, having the auto battle for easier encounters removes a tremendous amount of tedium.

Let’s say you don’t gel with the combat or find it tedious; that can be understandable with the length of a lot of JRPGs. Final Fantasy IV’s story moves at such a brisk pace that I was able to complete in 20 hours while undertaking numerous side quests. I was never bored, I constantly felt the severity of the situation at hand and I had concern for the characters in my party. When certain events would strip me of some of my party members, I got legitimately sad.

Newer JRPGs don’t do this often. Most of the time, you have a group of people who never face any consequences. They don’t die, never get called away or come under ailment; they are basically terminators. Everything that happens in battle doesn’t matter, because they will always be there for you. I usually get pissed off because the party size is arbitrarily limited and I can’t use them all at once.

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Final Fantasy IV may be a bit too happy about shifting around the dynamic of your group, but at least you never feel like anyone is being wasted. This is also putting aside how some events in the plot permanently remove members from the game, even if they still exist in the story. I’d really hate falling in love with Tellah, for example.

Still, the constant drive to keep the plot moving and have you seeing new things is refreshing. A lot of big budget games, let alone JRPGs, pad the length of their runtimes with meaningless content to justify a higher price point. Reaching the finish line feels like busy work instead of having the game motivate you to complete it.

Now are there any examples of modern JRPGs I enjoy? Sure, quite a few. I’ve always been into Kingdom Hearts, but that is possibly the best example of mixing wonder and joy together with two gigantic corporations collaborating. Having Disney’s dream filled worlds collide with the battle systems of Final Fantasy is so crazy and extreme that it balances out into fun. The combat also reminds me a lot of Diablo, in some bizarre manner.

Xenoblade Chronicles is also one of my favorite Wii titles, even if that deviates incredibly from the typical JRPG mold. It borrows heavily from World of Warcraft or even Final Fantasy XII, but it has an ever expanding world that is densely populated with believable characters. Maybe the sidequests are totally pointless, but the game doesn’t offer harsh punishments for failure to save or prepare; you’re allowed to make some mistakes and keep going.

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Tales of Vesperia was a game I bought on a whim after conversing with an old friend. He was a huge fan of the series and I loved the presentation aspect, but it left me feeling indifferent. The combat is pretty awesome, almost mimicking Street Fighter with combos and special moves, but the characters and elongated plot don’t do the game favors. Instead of being concise and giving the player forward momentum, the game has a tremendous amount of detours for characters to doubt themselves, almost once an hour. It really drags at the end.

Lost Odyssey is also great, but it suffers from the limitations of the Xbox 360. Being one of the first “next-gen” RPGs, the game utilizes the Unreal engine to push HD graphics. That requires a lot of disc spinning, so the load times are absolutely horrendous. Random battles take about 20-25 seconds to load and most of the game is waiting around for things to start. The combat is great and the story is incredibly deep, but even it falters with Disc three being worthless. Why are children so hard to write?

For the rest of my experiences with games, I just see the same kind of crap. Infinite Undiscovery was a borderline embarrassing waste of potential and Final Fantasy XIII is the worst example of that particular series. The newer Star Ocean titles also play things incredibly save and do nothing to push their settings; they just expect space to be awe-inspiring by itself.

That loss of wonder and excitement is what makes something like Dragon Ball Fusions feel so disappointing. It may not be a bad game and has some pretty complex battle mechanics, but it doesn’t really respect the players time and input. The game tasks you with suffering through the same encounters and plot points until it ends and gives you nothing in return.

Maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here, but I just want my playtime to feel like it mattered. I know that is getting caught up in an arbitrary definition, but older games usually put more of an emphasis on world building and player involvement. I just want to see that return to JRPGs, instead of the influx of bloated games with little originality.

I Will Survive

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Doing the right thing doesn’t always bring peace. When you’re a homeless person with a record, any threat to your safety becomes a threat to your life. Even if you know you’re breaking rules and causing trouble for others, when you lose the comfort of your safety net, all bets are off. Without a bed to sleep in, you might as well lie down and die.

Last night, I was assaulted by one of the men at the homeless shelter where I work. He had continuously broken our curfew rule and he wasn’t happy when I suspended him. Giving him a slight benefit of the doubt (and not wishing him to freeze out in the cold), I granted him permission to grab some of his belongings. Even if he was lying to me and himself, I wouldn’t want to bring harm to him.

Sadly, he didn’t feel the same way about me. I was helping another resident and his man turned around and slugged me. He got in a few more hits before I even realized what had happened. I’m thankful that someone else was in the room with me, or else I may have eventually retaliated and caused a serious problem.

What strikes me the most is the fear I saw in that man’s eyes. As he knocked me over and proceeded to walk towards me, I could see a killing intent beaming from his pupils. If I were a weaker person, I may have died in that room. While it frightens me to the very core of my being, it also makes me terribly sad that some people feel the need for physical violence.

When the world doesn’t go your way, resorting to such hostility isn’t going to solve your problems. You’re refusing to look in the mirror and see that your own behavior is causing your misfortune. I won’t claim I’m a saint, but I’m not the reason you lost everything in your life.

I do feel somewhat responsible, but mostly that I let such a violent man back into the shelter. I should have known this would occur; the guy had a history of coming in drunk and mouthing off to staff. He clearly has no respect for anyone, let alone himself. I can’t escape the thought that one of my female staff members could have been injured due to his guy’s belligerence.

I am mostly sharing this story, though, so that I don’t forget that moment of shock and horror. Certain events shape our lives and while I don’t intend on becoming a victim, I’m not going to shake this off like an accident. To walk past this like I’m some tough, emotionless robot is the wrong thing to do.

I also want everyone on this site to know that I feel stronger in my resolve to speak my mind. I may have taken a few hits to my face, but if your first hit doesn’t count, then expect me to keep ticking. I guess I’m a literal tank as I don’t even have any bruises or cuts.

Some of you may take issue with my articles, but your retorts lack substance. You’re dealing quick blows in a gut reaction without weight. You need a clear mind before you can harm me and your reasoning needs to be sound. Sure, I have my biases when it comes to some games, but I’ve do my research before posting.

I may have made mistakes in the past, but that isn’t happening anymore. I know who I am and what I’m setting out to do; I wish the naysayers would do the same. Be more constructive with your criticism, because my plate armor isn’t even going to kink when you strike.

And to the people that do enjoy my work and support me; I extend a tremendous thank you. As with this assault, I’m grateful that some people are able to put aside their own bullshit and reveal the beauty inside. I didn’t even need to exchange words to get their help and that overwhelms me.

Like I’ve said, I’m not saint, but I would have never thought others would put their own safety on the line for me. Clearly, I’ve done something right by them and I’m doing something right by you. Thank you so much for everything. Your kind words and continued support mean a lot to me.

Brut@l: Extended Thoughts

Just last Friday, I made my debut as a DToid staff member with my review of Brut@l. I found it to be rather mediocre, but at least acknowledged the game was well made. I, sadly, did not finish the game before posting the review, but I stood with conviction in my verdict.

Not one to let stones be unturned, I plugged away at reaching the finale to see if my opinion on Brut@l would change; overall, I’d say no. In a few ways, yes, but not for the better.

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The biggest issue with Brut@l is that the camera is just too finicky. Since the game deals with permadeath, failing to make it across a gap results in an instant game over. It feels cheap and out of the players hands when that happens.

Another problem comes from the randomly generated dungeons. Since there aren’t any pre-determined setpiece moments, a lot of the game just blends together. If you speedrun through (skipping all the upgrades, enemies and collectibles), you could finish the game in an hour, but most people won’t be able to do that.

The combat is too simplistic to remain fun for long. The enemies start ramping up in hit points and your weapons fail to get any stronger, unless you’re lucky enough to have the game grant you a tome for a stronger weapon.

You can, eventually, unlock talismans that grant you small buffs, but even that is dependent on the randomizer. Having so many options out of your control just makes for a really frustrating experience.

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I’d be more forgiving if the game had occasional boss battles, but the only such moment occurs on the final floor. When I, eventually, got there, I was a little thrilled. It was finally something different in the game.

Sadly, the joy ended almost immediately upon tackling the boss. He’s pretty easily disposed, but monotony sets in and the game falls into a groove that isn’t very much fun.

You enter a small room with the boss sitting on a perch. He summons a wave of monsters which you then need to dispose of. After that, you collect an ASCII letter (in this case, a special V) and repeat the process.

Once the two waves are down, you can lower a crossbow that then shoots off one of the three heads on the boss. He then destroys the crossbow and flies off. Now you have to repeat that process two more times.

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Or stand like an idiot because your inventory is full and you can’t pick up the damn item to initiate the wave!

I’m fine with the game encouraging more exploration, but why does it take 26 floors to finally have this happen? Why weren’t there more boss battles peppered throughout the game? Having one every five floors may be a bit excessive, but every 10 wouldn’t be so bad.

For that matter, why is 26 the floor limit? Why wasn’t more care put into distinguishing the level design? I know something like The Binding of Isaac is based around randomly generated floors, but the pool that Isaac draws from to create levels is pretty varied. Brut@l’s is not.

Sometimes you can get four levels in a row that all have the same beats. A poisoned floor, bottomless pits and locked chambers that require you to destroy a wave of enemies; it’s just boring after an hour or two.

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As a matter of fact, I almost feel like giving the game a five is being generous. Sure, everything works, but it’s so devoid of creativity that it almost feels insulting. Why would you spend $15 on a game that couldn’t be assed to create fully developed levels?

Again, the concept is sound. I don’t mind tinkering around with core mechanics that can change up on each playthrough, but those mechanics need to be very solid. When combat devolves into just mashing Square and jumping away, your game has failed.

I’m sure Brut@l has fans out there, but I don’t see what they do. The art style is the most realized thing in the entire package; everything else feels like half measures thrown in a big pot and set on low heat.

Still, I did actually finish the game. I won’t let something defeat me. I can’t say the same for others. That’s why I won’t change my original review score. Everything I originally said still stands.

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Without abusing save game backups, most people are not going to finish Brut@l. I guess the game lives up to it’s name, but it could do with a lot more polish.

Sigy Says – Ridge Racer: Unbounded Review

I’m not quite sure what I expected with Ridge Racer: Unbounded. The title sounded cool and I had heard decent things a few years back, but I never realized that Namco Bandai had tried their hand at a Burnout game. When I first loaded the game, I was delighted that this was taking a more destructive approach to racing.

After I finished the first event, I knew something was very wrong. The previous Ridge Racer games were all about speed. Tight turns, tighter controls and hilariously awful translations; that is what gave Ridge Racer its charm. All of that gets thrown out the window for Unbounded in an attempt to modernize the series.

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Ridge Racer Unbounded (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC [Reviewed])
Developer: Bugbear Entertainment
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release: March 27, 2012
MSRP: $9.99 (on PC), $29.99 (Consoles)

For starters, the graphics are darker and more realistic than ever before; the pace has been slowed a bit and the cars feel far too weighty. Drifting, which is an integral part of the track design, is so fucking busted that I nearly quit in fury a few times. Busted explains a lot of things with Unbounded, but it applies more to the controls then the arenas you’ll be tearing apart.

The newest addition with Unbounded is the destructible environments. I have to give credit where credit is due; Unbounded does offer an impressive amount of course carnage. While the props are basically made of styrofoam, your car can glide through things and not immediately crash. Sadly, that’s about the only decent thing in the tracks.

As for regular buildings, your car typically gravitates towards them. Barely clipping them will usually cause your car to smash up, but sometimes you go flying through the air or spinning in circles. While that should be realistic, the game has an awful tendency to reset your car before your crash site. This causes a tremendous amount of wasted time in Time Attack events and often causes you to lose up to 7 places in race mode.

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As for regular buildings, your car typically gravitates towards them. Barely clipping them will usually cause your car to smash up, but sometimes you go flying through the air or spinning in circles. While that should be realistic, the game has an awful tendency to reset your car before your crash site. This causes a tremendous amount of wasted time in Time Attack events and often causes you to lose up to 7 places in race mode.

These should be fun, but the physics and AI of the game are so borked that I couldn’t wrap my head around them. At times, you fly out of the gate and pass everyone with ease. Other times, the opponents are beyond hard and you’ll hardly catch them. Sometimes you’ll smash through highlighted objects only to immediately crash once the automated cutscene ends. You’ll even make jumps only to see your car barrel rolling through the air, despite not clipping anything.

There is also some horrible graphical glitch that causes constant flickering for upwards of 15 seconds at a time. It obscures some of the track and leads to wiping out or missing turns. It also looks terrible and gives me a headache, but that may be a personal issue.

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What isn’t personal is information about your cars. The stats are shown before you decide on your vehicle, but they aren’t really reliable. Maybe this is more down to individual playstyles, but the car with the highest speed stat should be the fastest one on the track.

There are also some cars that are carbon copies of others (excluding the pointless DLC) and others, still, that have mostly the same stats, but are higher in key areas. It makes certain cars completely worthless after reaching higher driver levels.

Then there is the lack of course diversity and the general sluggishness to the controls. It just doesn’t feel pleasant to play Ridge Racer: Unbounded. I had fun, at times, but not enough for me to recommend this to anyone. The lackluster campaign and hilariously anti-climactic ending just rub salt in the wound.

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The online portion is completely non-functional. From the sound of what it included, it could have remedied this package. Racers were given the ability to customize events and challenge others worldwide. While it may have been frustrating to deal with the controls, I could see smashing people into walls as being a blast.

Still, that doesn’t work. Namco Bandai shutdown the servers in 2015 and have basically cut the game in half. The price tag, at least, reflects the lack of multiplayer, but it still sours the overall package. Having courses made by other players would be outstanding, even if the game feels rushed and sloppy.

It doesn’t help that there isn’t a split-screen mode at all. I know PC games typically don’t offer split-screen, but even the console ports of Unbounded lacked the feature. In other words, the multiplayer was basically a bulletpoint on features for the game. No one actually cared about molding it into a celebrated feature (something that should be sorely missed upon it’s closure).

Overall, I just wouldn’t bother playing this. Unless you just have a fondness for the Ridge Racer name, there isn’t much here that hasn’t been done better in other racers. Unbounded mostly made me pine for a new Burnout or to return to Burnout: Revenge. Even the crappy portable Burnout games are better than this drivel.

3

Poor

Went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.

Sigy Says – Heretic Review

I was a big fan of Doom growing up in the 90’s, but I somehow missed out on all of the “Doom Clones.” I had a demo CD for the Mactintosh version of Star Wars: Dark Forces and I played a lot of Goldenye 007 on N64, but I never really played anything else like Doom.

One of the friends I made in middle school introduced me to Heretic and HeXen, but I couldn’t find copies for a reasonable price. Instead of borrowing or bootlegging the game, I decided to just wait until I had enough money in the future (which never seemed realistic at the time).

Flash forward to today and I’ve somehow managed to have Heretic on my Steam account for 5 years without playing it. I had forgotten about the QuakeCon pack from 2011 that included every iD title from that moment. Much to my surprise after having a Doom craze, I had some more Doom to explore.

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Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders (PC [Reviewed], Mac OS)
Developer: Raven Software
Publisher: id Software
Released: December 23, 1994 (March 31, 1996 for Shadow of the Serpent Riders expansion)
MSRP: $4.99

Calling Heretic a “Doom clone” is doing the game an injustice, but it certainly has a lot of game feel similar to Doom. Almost every weapon is a reskin from Doom 2 and most of the monsters share similar properties to enemies seen in Doom. The designs are incredibly different (and really diverse), but it’s hard to initially get out of your mind that Heretic is just Doom with a different coat of paint.

Eventually, you start to pick up on some of the changes that developer Raven Software has crammed into Heretic. For starters, this is the first FPS I can think of with an inventory system. It allows for the level of challenge to be ramped up since the player can constantly hold a source of health on them.

Not only that, but you can carry around various power-ups to use in sticky situations. Other shooters at the same time forced you to utilize anything you picked up then and there; Heretic puts more control into the players hand with the inventory system.

It is a bit annoying how you need to scroll through and additionally select an item before using it, but I’ll let that slide due to the release date (1994). That something so genre bending was even pulled off on the Doom engine is just awesome, let alone how chaotic it makes combat feel.

Each weapon has a different ammo type. It solves the mini issue Doom suffered with having the pistol and chaingun share ammo; getting the chain gun made the pistol redundant. In Heretic, every weapon feels valuable at any given time. Even the dinky starter mage staff can become awesome with the correct power-up.

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What isn’t so hot is how predictable the game becomes. At first, you’re not quite sure where to expect enemies to spawn from. Walking down corridors has walls dropping and enemies flying at you from all sides. By the time you reach the third episode, you’ve seen basically all of the tricks Heretic is ever going to throw at you.

That may have more to do with the original game only being 3 episodes, but episodes 4 and 5 really suffer from a lack of creativity. They are definitely difficult and well built (better than the rest of the game, even), but it feels dull after having played through 24 maps with similar layouts.

This is coupled with how the level design tends to have a lot of dead ends that require you to return to a centralized location. I’m guessing this was a precursor to the level design in the sequel, HeXen, where every map has a hub world. It does lend to some insanely confusing layouts, though.

The sound design is also pretty lackluster compared to Doom. On its own, the music is okay and the monsters sound like monsters, but nothing is distinct and most of the enemy sounds play at the same volume. It doesn’t feel as immersive as Doom, nor does it help the player distinguish which enemy is in an area with them.

The overuse of the first boss is also pretty lame. Maybe that is down to me playing on the second hardest difficulty, but I do wish there was more diversity in the boss encounters. Facing three of those floating giant skulls level after level becomes grating.

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With all of that said, I still found Heretic to be really enjoyable. It contains enough originality that any comparison to Doom sounds nitpicky. Sure, Doom may be an overall more polished and enjoyable game, but that doesn’t make anything done in Heretic not worth seeing. Heretic is also considerably harder, so Doom veterans will be in for a treat.

Getting the game running on modern operating systems is also a breeze. Since id Software released the Doom source code a long time ago, any modern Doom source port works with Heretic. You can boot up zDoom and get Heretic going in any manner of resolution you want. Full mouse look is enabled and keys can be rebinded to whatever your fancy is. There is even support for internet play, which is pretty damn awesome.

It also doesn’t hurt that the current price is exceptional. $5 for a game that will take around 6-8 hours to finish is just solid value. If you want to spring a bit more, you can get the rest of the series on Steam for $5 more. That includes Heretic, HeXen and HeXen II. That’s a lot of classic first-person shooter action for a small chunk of change.

However you slice it, Heretic is pretty good. There are definitely things that Raven Software could have done to distinguish it from the crowd, but for a first attempt from an unknown developer, you could do worse. For the price, you’d be hard pressed to find much worse, though.

7

Good

A solid game that definitely has an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.

Sigy Says – Life is Strange Review

The narrative driven, choice based adventure game has been a pretty big hit ever since Telltale made The Walking Dead. Lots of other studios have taken a crack at creating uncomfortable and trying scenarios for gamers to rack their minds with. Those studios usually forget to make choices have deeper meaning or create decisions that exist within a binary function of “right” and “wrong.”

Life is Strange attempts to tackle the problems these games typically face. It doesn’t quite nail the impact of decisions (deciding to go with an all or nothing type ending), but it certainly sidesteps the issue of viewing the world in terms of black and white.

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Life is Strange (PC [reviewed], Linux, OSX, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: Between January and October 2015
MSRP: $19.99

The main plot follows a week in the life of Max Caulfield, an 18 year old art student studying at a prestigious school in a fictional Oregonian town. She witnesses the death of a punk rock girl and, in a moment of desperation, turns back time. She doesn’t know what happened or how she did it, but manipulation of the very fabric of space and time is within her control.

The tale then follows her path to uncover the source of her powers, the reason behind the murder she originally witnessed and the problems facing Blackwell Academy. Lots of the story deals with a coming of age type narrative arc, before giving way to a murder mystery straight out of Law & Order.

The real meat and potatoes comes from all the different branching choices you’re given. Life is Strange deftly handles choices without falling back on “right” and “wrong.” Most decisions will never seem better or particularly easy. It’s all about figuring out how you would react or what causes the least amount of harm.

Max’s power of time control is also wonderfully worked into the gameplay. Once you make a choice and see the impact play out, you can immediately rewind to attempt the alternate option or just to tinker around with different outcomes. Instead of relying on the player to keep different save files or playthrough a second time, you can see basically all of the decisions first-hand.

There is one key part of the story that rips control away from Max and creates a heartbreaking encounter that can potentially end in tragedy. There are also story arcs that tackle the implications of getting a “do-over” and changing “destiny.” It’s not entirely original, but its application is very well done.

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What’s not so great is the dialog in the earlier episodes. Until around the mid-point of Episode 2, the writing is a bit wonky. Things like, “hella amazeballs” and “for cereal” are uttered without a hint of irony. It feels like an adult was trying to remember what being a teen was and mixed up some memes online.

The acting is also stilted, at first. I’m guessing no one was exactly sure how the game was going to pan out during the development of the first episode, but it just feels like a lack of direction was going on. Some of the lines are either a bit too soft or lack any dramatic weight. This does eventually pick up and turn into genuinely great performances (save for the final episode fizzling out), but it’s not thoroughly mesmerizing.

There are also some uncanny valley moments with the presentation. While this runs on the Unreal 3 engine, the characters are stiff and the environments feel detached. There is a very touching scene in a pool, but it looks like two dead mannequins floating in nothingness. I couldn’t get around that image, either.

What I did truly love was how gameplay elements were organically woven into the story. There are a lot of puzzles sprinkled throughout Max’s adventure and it’s awesome to not feel like you’re simply a spectator. You have to use critical thinking to figure out solutions based on the powers you’ve been given.

One scene has you gather chemicals to create an IED, blow open a door and then rewind so you end up on the other side. It’s a really awesome accomplishment. It truly feels like you came up with the answer on your own.

Chapter 4 is where this really shines. You have multiple pieces of information you’ve gathered over the course of the game that you’re required to piece together. You have to take a long look at any correlation and connect the dots. Even if you fail, the game has a few work-arounds to get you back on track (excluding your rewind).

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The final chapter drops the damn ball, however. There is a stealth section that is entirely pointless. Since you can rewind and remain in place, there is literally no reason to have characters searching for you. You cannot fail and pressing forward serves no repercussion. I understand it was a narrative device, but it utterly fails as a piece of gaming.

Honestly, the game was building up to a crescendo that Episode 5 never delivers. The definitive ending is certainly gut-wrenching, but the 2 hours leading up to it feel like a cop-out. It seems like DONTNOD had no idea how to really make your actions take affect or just wanted to impose their own will on the story. Regardless, Episode 5 does away with all of the good that the rest of the game exhibits.

There are some light puzzles, but everything is a forced, linear path and the dialog amounts to nothing more than expository exchanges with main characters. Some beats will tug at the heart strings, but most will just bore you (do I need to see that damn picture changing cutscene each time?).

That doesn’t destroy all the good that Episode 3 and 4 bring, but it does bookend the game with average scenarios. It starts slow and ends with a whimper. If you chopped out a little bit of the first episode, you could honestly combine it with the second and get the same result.

In all honesty, a lot of these games seem to crumble under marketing hype. Developers never know when to chill out with how cool their games are (or publishers pressure them into overselling their creations). Life is Strange is more about the relationship between two friends and how choices aren’t the end of the world (until they literally are).

I hate to be so harsh to a game that tackles such dark, dramatic and realistic topics like sexual abuse, stalkers, suicide and bullying, but most of the elements drag down the experience. The ridiculous twist of the real villain is also completely out of left field.

The game creates characters that feel like 3 dimensional beings and demands you look at them as more than caricatures, then the final chapter ends up labeling you a hero and the main bad-guy a psychopath. Dammit.

Still, Life is Strange is absolutely worth a playthrough. It’s not the best thing around, but it has an excellent mixture of gameplay and narrative heft to feel like a really important piece of gaming history. It will also resonate deeply with people who have suffered through similar tragedies in life.

I just wish DONTNOD nailed every aspect. This could have been a stone cold masterpiece.

6.5

All Right

Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy this game, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.