Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
So what is Heavy Rain? Some could argue it's not even a game. You could call it one gigantic Quick Time Event and be correct. Likewise, you could also call it one of the greatest thrill rides in some time, and also be correct. Most people have chosen to dub it "Interactive Drama". I think that works just fine.
You see, in most games, it's the gameplay that matters. A game can still pass as "good" with a horrible plot, as long as it's got some nice gameplay to keep the player hooked. With Heavy Rain it's the other way around. Here it's the plot that matters. The gameplay is there solely to give the plot a nudge here and there. Think of it as one those "choose your own adventure" kinda games, and you'll likely have the right idea.
A bit of the magic of the game comes from going into it knowing as little about the plot and characters as possible, so I'll be brief in explaining it. The prologue begins with Ethan Mars, a successful architect who's leading a happy life with his wife and two kids. What begins as a happy, slice of life sort of deal quickly delves into chaos when Ethan and one of his children are hit by a car. Ethan falls into a coma but eventually awakens, but his son isn't so lucky. Fast forward two years, and the guy is a total mess. His wife has divorced him, his remaining child is unhappy, and his guilt has steadily hurt his psychological condition. Meanwhile, since the incident, a serial killer hunting boys age 9-13 has arisen in town. Dubbed the "Origami Killer" for his/her tendency to leave an origami figure at the site of the crime, the killer eventually kidnaps Ethan's last son, completely devastating him on both a mental and emotional level.
Enter investigative journalist Madison Paige, FBI profiler Norman Jayden, and private investigator Scott Shelby. Madison wants a scoop on the killer. Jayden wants him behind bars. Scott just wants to know the killer's identity, for the sake of the families who have already been hit by him/her. Of course, you play all three, in addition to Ethan, as they attempt to track down both Ethan's son and the killer.
Generally speaking, Heavy Rain is a slow playing game. You play primarily by performing commands when prompted. A lot of the time this is "on rails", but other times you'll be given the chance to simply wander around a given environment, interacting and exploring. As Madison you might do a bit of breaking and entering, investigating the residence of a suspect. As Norman you might use advanced FBI tech to scan for clues on a crime scene, which will hopefully point you in the right direction.
The unique thing about Heavy Rain is that, while there is an overall plot that the game follows, the details can branch off every which way at multiple points in the game. That house you were sneaking around in as Madison? It may have suddenly become a death trap, when the suspect comes home, and likely tries to kill you. Scanning for clues as Jayden, you might come across a bit more than you bargained for. This is the part where someone might try to off you for knowing too much.
All cutscenes in Heavy Rain are driven by button prompts. Whether or not Ethan survives navigating a field of live electrical conduits may be entirely dependent on your ability to hold X, L1, R2, Square, and Circle all at once. Or whether Scott can overpower his attacker may come down to how fast you can mash the X button.
There are a few different prompts besides the standard one button press. A pulsating button symbol represents actions requiring endurance or strength (like pushing something over), and means you have to tap it repeatedly and as quickly as possible. An arrow indicates a direction that must be executed with the right stick. A dotted lines means the action must be executed slowly, for actions that require precision (like treating wounds). The game also makes use of the motion sensors. Though awkward at first, I found soon enough that executing motion control commands are just about as easy as button commands, thanks to the use of simple movements, excellent calibration and forgiving recognition. Often the game will also have you hold multiple buttons at once, to simulate complex body movements (like climbing and navigating small spaces). Fortunately, the hold button sequences are rarely long or complicated, so you won't usually feel like you're playing Twister on your controller.
While normal dialogue decisions are dotted throughout, the game will frequently present you with other, much tougher ones. Regardless of what you choose, regardless of what happens, the plot will move on, forcing you to deal with the consequences of the decisions you make (unless you play cheap and just replay the chapter). In Heavy Rain there's little such thing as a game over. If a character dies, the plot moves on without him or her, adapting to their absence. If all the playable characters die, the plot simply concludes early.
Moving on to the technical side of things, Heavy Rain is a mixed bag in terms of visual fidelity. For the most part, animation is excellent, though it shows its computer-generated weaknesses every now and then. The commands are integrated extremely well into the game so as to not be overly distracting, but still get your attention. Environments look swell overall, though I thought the level of detail was not the same among some objects. Each chapter's load screen presents the moving face of the character you'll be playing as for that chapter in a ridiculously lifelike fashion, though the character models aren't quite so detailed during gameplay. Simply put, visual quality is impressive most of the time, but somewhat inconsistent. I do however applaud the camera work, the overall visual themes are topnotch. Constant heavy rainfall throughout the story runs parallel to Ethan's sorrow and depression, and plenty of gray, brown and green hues are thrown in to help convey the darker tone of the story.
The audio is another mixed bag. Characters are voiced pretty well generally, enough that they can adequately deliver on the game's more intensely emotional scenes, but it's not perfect, which wouldn't be a big deal in most other games, but stands out here because the plot and presentation are the big hooks. It stands to reason that voice acting should be damn near perfect, as a result. Fortunately, the soundtrack picks up whatever slack the VOs drop. Nearly every bit of the BGM is an aural delight, and the sound design helps to pull you further into the game than anything else I've experienced in some time.
Unfortunately, the game is one of the buggier ones I've played in recent times. Though framerate issues are few and far between, the game has frozen on me a couple times, and I've known the audio to skip or blatantly loop. Most of these have only minor impacts on the player however, due to the game autosaving pretty much every couple of minutes, and the ability to jump right back to your last save point from the main menu.
Heavy Rain offers a great experience, one definitely worth having. But perhaps more importantly, it represents a milestone in digital entertainment. Quantic Dream took a basic plot and gave you the reigns to push it where you want. Despite being QTEs, action cutscenes are surprisingly intense, and will no doubt have you on the edge of your seat. Both the audio and visuals, while not perfect, both serve to pull you into the experience, and do so to remarkable effect. One playthrough will only take several hours to beat, but most of the 60-some chapters can be replayed in multiple different ways, with different choices and actions, and of course there are many, many endings to this tale. Seeing all there is to see in this game will take quite some time indeed. A 9/10.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Monday, March 1, 2010
There's a lot of people, myself included, who would love to see a Kingom Hearts 3. But while I have no doubt in my mind it will happen eventually (after FFVersus 13; you heard it here first), right now Square-Enix seems to be more focused on just expanding the plot content they've already got, with spin-offs of the two flagship PS2 games. And so we have Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.
In 358/2 Days, you play as Roxas, who more dedicated fans will recognize as Sora's Nobody. The game starts right from the time Roxas is created (when Sora becomes a Heartless in KH1), runs parallel to Chain of Memories for a while, then connects right into the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2 at the end. Most of the story centers around Roxas's everyday life during the year Sora is asleep inbetween Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2.
Typical of a Kingdom Hearts game, 358/2 Days starts slow. Really slow. The plot is separated into a couple major story arcs, tied together with glimpses at the everyday life of Roxas during his time in Organization XIII. The plot moves so slowly, in fact, that it's difficult to summarize it in an efficient manner. Taking the Uncharted 2 approach, starting a new game gives you a look at the happy conclusion of the ~250th or so day Roxas has spent in the Organization. Then it zips all the way back to Day 1. One thing's for sure, however. If you're a fan of Organization XIII, and never got to see all of its members (before now, Chain of Memories was the only game that had most or all of them), this game is a boon. Various Organization members accompany Roxas on daily missions, allowing for lots of dialogue which gives you an extensive look into each members' personality. Combined with Chain of Memories, it's also a veritable gold mine of backstory information, particularly that of Roxas (like where he got his second keyblade) and of course each Organization member.
While a lot of 358/2 Days is recycled content, there are some interesting new elements. Firstly, the game, while still linear, is mission based. You still travel to different worlds (the same ones, in fact), but instead of steadily exploring them in one sitting, you go back to them for several visits for various objectives, and their story is given to you in tidbits, as a result. Missions come in an acceptable amount of varieties. Unlike the rest of the members of Organization XIII (except for Xion), Roxas is able to collect hearts from defeated Heartless enemies with his Keyblade. Thus most missions have you going out to either hunt down specific enemy types, or just collect hearts, in general. There's also recon missions (my favorite), where you explore a certain world and try to scope out the situation by examining anything you find unusual (for example, through recon missions you slowly piece together that Beast is in fact the ruler of his castle, and that his appearance is possibly a curse). The Organization will also regularly challenge you to complete fitness tests, which count as missions. Only a couple of the missions handed out each day are mandatory (you can advance the plot and skip the remaining ones), but I suspect you would find yourself a little underpowered if you made a habit of only hitting up the story related missions. You can go back and replay each completed mission with the Holo-Mission option in the pause menu. Most missions also contain two different badges lying around. The Ordeal badge lets you replay the mission in Challenge mode with some set restrictions (basically Hard mode) to earn Challenge Sigils, whereas the Unity badge unlocks the mission in the multiplayer mission mode.
The progression system has also undergone a drastic change. While abilities, magic, and levels remain, they are governed by the new panel system. Basically, you have a grid full of empty squares in which you can embed all sorts of things. Level ups each take up one square, as does each cast of magic, each ability, and each item you bring into a mission. Some tiles, like those that upgrade your weapon and augment basic tiles, are bigger and take up several spaces on the grid. You start out with only a fraction of the grid open to you, but eventually you'll open the entire grid. Even so, space is a limited commodity, so you can't just "wing it".
Conceptually speaking, the Panel system achieves a level of stat customization similar to that in Final Fantasy 12, or Custom Robo. You can make Roxas melee focused, dedicating grid space to strength and combo enhancing tiles, as well as abilities like Block and/or Dodge Rooll. Or, you could make him a heavy magic user, with plenty of offensive and defensive magic tiles and ethers. Or of course, you could strike any balance between the two, with a decent combo weapon tile and a couple projectile magic tiles for versatility. It's up to you. You can store several custom grids, so you don't have to manually wipe the board every time you want to make a drastic role change.
But organizing your panels gets more complex than that. As a melee attacker, will you focus on air combos? There's a panel for that. Attacks with a wide reach? There's a panel for that. Long and quick high speed ground combos? There's a panel for that. You can only equip one weapon panel at a time, so it's important keep in mind what you're going to be up against in the next mission as you look over your panels. If you're going to fighting enemies that are known to strike quickly, maybe you should equip the Dodge Roll ability. If you're going to fighting a lot of airborne enemies or doing a fitness test, go for the Air Slide ability, which lets you dash in midair and cover that extra distance you may need. Magic works the same way. Will you equip Fire magic? Thunder? It should all depend on what the enemy report says as you look over an available mission
Lastly, panels' abilities can be enhanced by linking them with special tiles. Each time you level up, you get a level up panel to throw in the grid at your leisure. Occasionally, you'll come across a level multiplier, with which you can link several level up panels to multiply your overall stats to new heights. The same goes for magic, ability, and weapon panels. Certain panels linked to the Block ability tile (which let's you deflect enemy attacks), for example, can give it special qualities, like extra recoil or the ability to immediately counter-attack. Magic tiles linked together can multiply the number of casts available to you, reducing the number of magic-restoring ethers you might need to bring.
Inbetween missions, you'll soon have access to the store, which let's you spend points earned from collecting hearts on new panels. You can also spend sigils earned from Challenge missions for some handy freebies, and badges earned from completing Mission Mode (more on that in a bit) tasks.
Another returning features is item synthesis. As you complete missions, you'll both collect and be rewarded with various item materials, with which you can craft panels. It costs money (or "munny") to synthesize items, but since you don't use your cash for anything else (remember you use heart points to do real shopping), it replenishes itself quickly. Synthesis is a way to get your hands on powerful new panels before they become available (assuming they ever will be available) in the points store.
As you complete missions, you are occasionally granted a rank promotion, which comes with lots of benefits. Firstly, several new items become available for purchase and synthesis each time you rank up. You can also unlock extra characters in Mission Mode with a high enough rank.
Combat in 358/2 Days is very much unchanged from most other entries in the series. It's still very much a game about mashing the attack button to throw out attacks. Like in the other games, there's a heavy focus on combos, especially once you get your hands on more advanced panels. Taking out enemies in quick succession activates a Heart Chain, which multiplies the amount of heart points you get each time you take out an enemy before the chain expires. You can employ abilities like Dodge Roll, Air Slide and Block to spice things up, and more powerful weapon panels often have you press Y to extend your combo, but it's still not anything people who played KH1 or 2 haven't already seen in some variation. The game makes minimal use of touch screen controls, only using the bottom screen to display mission information and a map. Despite the DS having less buttons than a console controller, the game controls really well, and will be very familiar for series veterans. You can still hold the left bumper to access custom mapped items and spells, and the X, Y, A, and B buttons do almost all the same things Triangle, Square, X, and Circle did on the Dualshock 2.
The only major addition is Limit Breaks. About 15-20% of your life bar (just eyeballing it) is yellow. When your HP falls into this region, you can activate your Limit Break mode for a few seconds, which lets you unleash a wild flurry of combos that do exponentially more damage per hit. Each time you activate Limit Break, this yellow region shrinks significantly though, requiring you to take even more damage before you can activate it again. Because of this you can typically only use Limit Break a couple times per mission (though there are panels available that increase the size of the yellow area).
Nearly all of the music, visuals, and presentation styles have been completely recycled from the console games, so there's not much innovation to be found in that department. In fact, I suspect a lot of development time was spent finding methods to take the existing worlds and their BGMs and compress them to fit on a DS cartridge. They obviously managed it rather well, as the game features some pretty great visuals for a DS game. But just know that there's very little new content to be found here in terms of presentation.
358/2 Days has a very impressive amount of replay value though. Like I said before, each and every mission can be replayed to find extra items and materials, and most of them also have a challenge counterpart that you can attempt to complete for sigils.
Speaking of replay value, let's talk about Mission Mode. When you're not playing the main story, you can settle back for some miscellaneous missions in Mission Mode. Missions can be completed cooperatively by up to four players via multi-cartridge multiplayer, which is an awesome bonus. All thirteen Organization members are playable here, including Roxas, and they all have their own unique weapons, which too can be tinkered with using the panel system (though most of them still have preset base stats which make them better at some things and bad at others). There are also a few secret characters that can be unlocked. Completing missions earns you emblems, which you can redeem for prizes in the main story mode shop.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is a great entry in the series. While it doesn't bring much of anything new to the table, there's no denying that it gets a lot of things done right, and of course features a compelling, if poorly paced, story to keep players engaged. The four player co-op is an excellent bonus, and one I can only hope to see in the next console entry. An 8.5/10