Monday, December 31, 2012

Huge 2012 Year-End Blowout Inventory Clearance Blog Post!

Well crap. It's been three months since my last blog post, which finally breaks my streak of having at least some sort of new content every calendar month since this blog started. The last few months have been busy with work and family obligations, and... Oh fine, I've just been too lazy to write. Too much gaming yielded too much to write about, too much to write about yielded too much procrastination, too much procrastination yielded too much gaming. It's a horrible loop.

At the very least, I wanted to share a little end-of-the-year blog post with you, reviewing some games that recently debuted that were featured in my PAX East post. I have bought my pass and booked my hotel for next year, and I'm counting down the days until I get to do it all again (after I somewhat slagged it off as not something I should be doing last time). I started writing this blog post in October (honest), and I wanted to start the ball rolling on what should hopefully be a new year of anti-crastination.

Rock Band Blitz
Xbox and PS3, reviewing Xbox
Probably the most mainstream of the games I've checked out, Rock Band Blitz is a casual take on the rhythm game franchise. You play all of the instruments, although only one at a time, and with only two buttons to hit in a usually-alternating fashion. The challenge of the game is leveling up all of the instruments together to increase your scoring potential. You have to be familiar with how each song plays out, so you can anticipate what instrument to level up more quickly before it drops out of the song. Failure doesn't mean you lose, it just means you score less.

That said, the game seems to run on a very convoluted economic system. For each star you earn while playing (read: "For each scoring milestone you pass"), you earn 100 coins (plus "cred," which seem to have no value whatsoever). These coins can be spent on purchasing three types of power-ups, which cost 250, 200, and 100 coins each. Generally, you'll need three power-ups in some combination to get a high score, but if you do the math, you're spending 550 coins to do so, which means you need to hit the highest score bracket (five gold stars, worth 600 coins) to make any sort of profit. Mind you, you get double coins on your first playthrough of any song, and the payout system has been tweaked since the game was released to favor the player a bit more, but it still feels backward that anytime you play, you almost always have to take a loss.

The game comes with 25 songs, most of which I'd never heard of before. You can purchase additional songs from the in-game store for $2 a pop, which feels like a fair price, but I can't see myself splurging on many songs to flesh out this game more. Maybe if there were a way to use those hard-earned coins to purchase songs, I'd be more comfortable with the game on the whole, but without that option, Rock Band Blitz just feels like a social game where the more you play, the more the developer wins. Mind you, it's still a good game overall, but it's wrapped in an overall unappealing way.

Across the indie divide, we find Retro/Grade, a rhythm-based avoidance game, where you must undo entire space battles by un-firing your lasers and re-dodging backward-moving missiles from your enemies. If you make a mistake, you can un-rewind time to fix it (yeah, wrap your head around that), but you have a limited amount of un-rewind time per level. Ideally, if you rewind each level perfectly, you'll lower your score back to zero, though part of this relies on some luck with power-ups, so just know that a lower score is better.

In the main campaign, there are ten songs, which unfortunately get old somewhat quickly. It doesn't help that there are six difficulty levels with which to play the game, so you've got a lot of replaying the same songs for completion. A lot of the game's eye candy appeal (some really nice scenery and excellently-animated boss enemies) are lost to the fact that you have to keep focusing on the bullets in the foreground, which is sad.) However, there's also a separate choose-your-own-path adventure mode where you play the same songs with little challenging tweaks (faster speed, no color assistance, playing facing the opposite direction, etc.) bring the game back to life in an oddly intriguing way. In the end, the interesting gameplay tweaks compensate for its repetitiveness, and I'd say Retro/Grade is definitely worth a go.

Other reviewers that have tackled Dyad claim it's impossible to describe it in one sentence, so here's my go: It's a racing game with color-matching elements. See? It's not hard, guys. Just stay away from the "magic shroom" metaphors and it's quite easy. In each level you travel through a tube, hooking on to enemies ahead of you to get a small speed boost. Hook two similarly-colored enemies for a larger speed boost. Some enemies may also leave short trails you can hop on for an extra speed boost (after you've dodged their attack). A good portion of the levels are straight race-against-the-clock rounds, while many others require you to grab a certain number of enemies or power-ups, and other interesting challenges where you're trying to hit the fastest speed possible or maintain power-up-edness for as long as possible.

This is probably a cliche thing to say about a racing game, but sometimes I felt like it was all moving too fast. Between the frantic music and the seizure-inducing colors, it was often hard to play the game well, or well enough to reach upper-echelon achievements. The game seems to be aware that some may use random button-mashing and penalizes players appropriately. Still, if you can focus hard enough, each level can be conquered, and it feels rather satisfying when you do. This one is also worth picking up, even if you don't do drugs. In fact, don't do drugs. The More You Know!, etc.

Runner 2
Runner 2 hasn't released yet, but I feel like I have to give it a mention here. In the past, I slagged off the original BIT.TRIP RUNNER as unenjoyable since the controls didn't seem to correspond with the on-screen actions in a weird lag-plus-rhythmic-dissonance sort of way, but for reasons I can't put my finger on, I'm somehow excited for its sequel to eventually come out. I've been checking up on Gaijin Games' blog, and something, maybe the new music (which I love), maybe the less pixeled, more cartoonish style, something jumps out at me. I hope good things come of it.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pick a Number, Any Number... So Long As It's Four

Just for the fun of it, today I went back and played Tepiiku, a dice game I reviewed way back when for JIG. It's an interesting game for three players (you and two AI) where the player with the lowest-scoring hand has the obligation to either pay the highest-scoring player a forfeit, or attempt to increase their hand's value at the risk of paying double the forfeit for failing. There's a major flaw in how the wagering plays out, since the game will not allow you to attempt to reroll if you can't pay the potential double forfeit; sometimes your opponents will boost the stake between them, and by the time it passes to you, you're forced to pay up without ever getting to play. Sure, it could result in interesting tactics if you could find a way to work it to your advantage, but more often than not, it's just frustrating.

That was a flaw I pointed out in my review, and it was echoed by many of the commenters. Later on, the creator of the game stopped by to acknowledge the flaw and explain his reasoning for it. Which is awesome. I love it when the developer stops by to discuss the development of their game.

But that's not what this post is about. This post was sparked by what was the very first comment left to the game, by an ever-so-popular visitor named Anonymous.

"Mmm-hmmm. Just like I thought. Just like every other dice and card game in existence, apparently, once you get out of the practice round, it's absolutely nothing but consistent crap for you, and perfect hands/rolls for all AI players, every single hand. No thanks. How about at least faking some random fairness for once, developers? Maybe?"

The developer addressed this comment by assuring Mr. 'mous that the dice rolls are "fair and random" and that there were no shenanigans at hand. Streaks of bad luck, perhaps, but no foul play. That didn't stop 'mous from insisting that the game was clearly still rigged, and even going so far as to accuse the developer of ignoring him and the "evidence" that the game is rigged.

This, for reasons I don't understand, is a trend in a lot of dice games I review or see reviewed; the game is cuh-learly rigged because the player doesn't win once or twice. It happened with Tepiiku. It happened with Pigalator 2k5; the developer also addressed complaints about randomness there (but they still continued). It happened with Zilch, and the developer not only addressed the griefers but also released the code for the random number generator. Is it so hard to accept that streaks of bad luck happen, and that hopefully you'll hit a good streak if you keep playing? Or, heaven forbid, could you just not be good at the game?


Bear with me on this sudden change of topic: Last week, I started working my way through Codecademy, a website that takes you through the basics of coding in HTML, JavaScript, Python, and other programming languages. I'm obviously not a coding genius, but if my experiences with this website and SpaceChem are anything to go by, I might be a bit of a programming addict. I'm about a third of the way through the JavaScript Fundamentals track, which, if I am to take the authors' interpretations of "next week we'll talk about..." literally, is supposed to be a 26-week course... Whoops.

I'm obviously not a coding genius, and I don't know how much JavaScript goes into programming Flash games, but I've picked up a few things from the course. In the lessons I've had so far, I've learned the basics for simple random events, such as rolling a die or picking a card. In fact, here's what rolling a die looks like:

var roll = Math.floor(Math.random()*6+1);

To break that down:
  • Starting inside the parentheses, Math.random() generates a random number between 0 and 1. I don't know how specific the number is, but in the printouts I've tried, it's generally extended out to something like twelve decimal places, like 0.728027699732 (and yes, I did pull that number from
  • Since there are six sides on our die, we multiply that random value by six. That will give us something between 0.000000000006 and 5.999999999994. Our random value is now 4.368166198392.
  • Dice are usually labelled with the numbers 1-6, not 0-5, so we add one to our result. Now we've got 5.368166198392.
  • But what sort of die gives us a decimal as a roll? Math.floor() rounds down the value to the highest whole number below our value, which is 5. So there you have it, I just rolled a 5.

It's a long explanation, but that one line of code is all it takes to roll a six-sided die. (Well, you'd also add console.log(roll); to print out the number.) But can you imagine the coding it would take to rig a die so it rolls one number more frequently than another, for example, more low numbers than high? Walk with me through this idea.

  • In theory, while you'd be visually displaying a die with six sides, you'd probably program it as something with more than six sides, with extra sides representing more instances of the numbers you want to occur more frequently. We'll keep it simple by secretly rolling a 10-sided die, where the numbers 7-10 give more weight to outcomes of 1 or 2.
  • We could start out with a similar line of code to the one above and substitute one number: var rollStack = Math.floor(Math.random()*10+1);
  • On a regular roll of the dice, we would just return the value of roll as a result. But since we're stacking the deck, we need to add more coding. We need to add an if/else function statement that checks if our result is 7-10 and tweak it so it gives us a 1 or 2. (This was implemented in an exercise involving making a blackjack game, such that jacks, queens, and kings, with the values 11-13, still return a value of 10.) In the end, you'll end up with something like this:

var rollStack = function() {
var die = Math.floor(Math.random()*10+1);
return die;};
var die = rollStack();
var getValue = function(die) {
if(die===7 || die===8 || die===9)
{return 1;}
else if(die===10)
{return 2;}
{return die;}};

Slap a console.log(getValue(die)); on the end, and you've got yourself a stacked die that gives 1s and 2s over half of the time. I've got to confess to you though, the above coding took me about two hours to figure out, and I ended up having to go back to the blackjack exercise and lift a decent portion of the code from there. In the end, by my writing (I'm sure someone could probably reduce what I've done down by a couple lines), it takes you about a dozen lines of code to rig a die, and a slender single line to play with a fair die.


I went through all that coding hell to illustrate this point: Coding a fair die is so much easier than coding a stacked die. To think that someone would intentionally suffer through coding a stacked die to make a game unfair, rather than using a simple fair die, is just stupid. If anything, I would hope that if someone wrote a game with a stacked die, they would wear it as a badge to show you how much work they went through (like something by RRRRThats5Rs, or The Binding of Isaac). Plus, people would flock to it in greater numbers knowing that it's a deliberately unfair game against them.

Coding a cheating game isn't logical. Next time you play a game that "seems to hate you," just accept it: You suck. But you can change that! Play some more. Develop new strategies. Find out how other people beat the game. It's entirely possible that you might've had bad luck once or twice or twenty times, but automatically blaming that on the game being rigged is narcissistic lunacy. After all, if you won every time, it wouldn't be much of a game, would it?


Edit: Well, that didn't take long. As zxo points out in the comments, all it would take to change the fair die roll to a stacked die roll is to square the value of the random number, giving much greater weight to lower numbers. He suggests it could be done by adding two characters (I'd imagine ^2), but the shortest addition I can find is Math.pow(). So all of a sudden, my brick of stacked code looks like this:

var roll = Math.floor(Math.pow(Math.random(),2)*6+1);

And my entire argument has already been obliterated. Not that it was even a strong argument to begin with, I confess. But can we at least agree that people who complain about random number generators need to shut up?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Paint the Town Red... Or Yellow

Pop Quiz: What do "Legends of the Hidden Temple," "American Dad," and "de Blob 2" have in common? Dee Bradley Baker. But I digress.

de Blob 2 is a pretty-good-but-not-perfect platformer that came out last year. In it, you play as Blob, the colorful leader of the Colour Underground, who must restore the color to Prisma City by fighting the evil Comrade Black and his army of inky soldiers. The gameplay involves rolling around town and painting buildings with your body to unlock previously inaccessible areas. The game is divided into three-dimensional platforming challenges while running around in gigantic outdoor cityscapes, and two-dimensional linear-maze-ish challenges while inside buildings. Even though there is combat, it's pretty minimal, where most enemies are defeated by jumping and squashing them, plowing through them, or just getting out of their way and letting them self-destruct. As such, with all of the ultra-colorful rainbow themes and excessive glee, it would be easy to mistake de Blob 2 as a children's game. Which it might actually be, I'm not sure. (It is put out by SyFy Kids, after all.) Kid cuisine or not, de Blob 2 does some awesome things that I wish more games would follow suit on.

Each level in de Blob 2 is huge, both in length and height. You'll spend a good portion of your time unlocking each of five to seven sections of each map, one at a time. As such, each level is a pretty decent timesink; I probably spent 90 minutes or more on each level, which also includes a handful of time for completionist activites (more on that later). What amazes me is that even for all of the crazy long levels, and fairly few variations on the themes of "paint things, smash things, and collect things," the gameplay didn't feel that stale at all. Of course, it was frustrating having to go back and replay chunks of the level after dying, but somehow playing through rather similar sequences didn't feel that tedious at all. (But man, what I wouldn't do to have some sort of level map to see where everything is...)

One thing that might have helped ease the tedium was the fact that each level has its own soundtrack, some of which you create as you go along. The music in each level generally starts out quite hollow and bare, maybe the vaguest semblance of a chord structure happening. As you accomplish more tasks and paint more of the level, you hear more instruments added to the mix until it's a raucous jam session by the end. Another cool element is that as you paint your surroundings, an extra instrumental riff is added in depending on what color you are (trumpets for yellow, bass for purple, organ for green, etc., although I might have those mixed up). Even though each level's music is essentially a long loop with different bits mixed in or taken out each time you hear it, it still feels fresh by the end of the level, and that's awesome.

Another point I feel other games need to copy is the acknowledgement that you might have accomplished a certain task before you're formally asked to do so. Since each level is essentially a mini-sandbox game with new portions unlocked as you go, you have the ability to accomplish some tasks (such as painting buildings or freeing trapped citizens) before you reach their actual starting points. Often times, the game simply acknowledges that you've accomplished this and moves you right on to the next task, which is awesome. But perhaps it's worth noting that this stands out to me as a strong suit simply because I've played a number of games where this isn't the case, and you'll be asked to redo a task you've already done just because the game "needs" you to advance in a very set order in order to move on (there are some instances in the Assassin's Creed games that spring to mind with regards to this). So perhaps I only feel this is awesome because this is the first sandboxy game I've played, but it's still something that grabbed me as cool.

Alas, if there's one huge issue I have with this game, it's a huge limiting factor to de Blob 2's sandbox-ness: Each level has a time limit in which you have to accomplish all story-related portions of the level. The time limit doesn't enhance the gameplay at all, it only feels like an extra layer of difficulty stapled on because the game wasn't "tough enough" to begin with. It's frustrating to have to restart a level simply because an arbitrary time limit ran out. It's frustrating to not be allowed to explore the levels and collect all of the hidden items just because you have to get the plotline tasks done first. As a gaming completionist, the latter point deeply bothers me. Mind you, once the main plot of each level is out of the way, you're free to explore the level with no time limit, but to restrict it to the end of each level is stupid. There's only once instance where the time limit means anything significant, and that's in the final level, where you are offered several temptations to save more citizens and grab extra swag at the penalty of wasting time before the crucial countdown ends. It's entirely possible that the time limits in all of the previous levels existed just to give the player a ballpark estimate of "Oh yeah, I could get that done with the amount of time I have left" at that final stage of the game, but before that, it's just fake difficulty.

The camera and controls sometimes do wonky things, but that's not too large of an issue that I feel it's worth ranting about here.

Aside from the time issue, de Blob 2 is definitely a very solid game. Even if you're not familiar with the plotline from the first commercial de Blob game (which I'm not), the in-game storyline and cutscenes are written in such a way that it's really easy to pick up the story and even make some emotional bonds with the characters, even if everything is gibberish. The gameplay, to my surprise, contains just enough variety to make sure the game never feels too stale, and is just the right difficulty for most ages. There's a ton of game to tackle in de Blob 2, which makes it very much worth the price (shame it seems to be on the clearance racks everywhere now). Pick up a copy and experience the joy of smearing paint all over town with your body.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Quick Review of Quantum Conundrum

Ha! Another game that starts with a Q!

Quantum Conundrum is an interesting puzzle platformer where you play a boy dropped into his uncle's mansion, who needs to free his uncle from some bizarre dimension he's trapped in. You know, like that one episode of Happy Days. To aid your rescue, you take control of an interdimensional-switching glove (I think that's what the acronym stood for?). Given the presence of the associated battery in an area, you can switch the dimension you're experiencing to a fluffy dimension (where you can move heavy objects), a heavy dimension (where you can make lightweight objects trigger weight-sensitive pads), a slow-motion dimension (where you can... well, it's self-explanatory), and a reverse-gravity dimension (ditto).

There are sixty-some levels, and on the whole, I'd say they're... good. Not fabulous, but good. In my mind, I want to compare the puzzles in this game to the puzzles in Q.U.B.E. or Portal. In those games, solving a hard puzzle took quite a long time, and you got an exhilarating feeling of accomplishment when you figured it out. That excitement just doesn't happen here, and I can't pinpoint a specific reason why. It might be because the puzzles were faster and easier to solve, so that "ah-ha" bliss couldn't build up enough tension before the explosive moment of realization. It might be because the puzzles usually felt too intuitive, as though there was only one way to progress from point A to point B, and all you had to do was get there (not that red herring solutions would have improved it at all). Mind you, the puzzles in here were of a good quality and never felt "old" at any point, but they just weren't that compelling.

The story's a bit disappointing, to be honest. You're working to save your uncle (voiced by John de Lancie, who was in so many things I've heard of but never seen, but he's apparently a big deal, I guess?) who chides you and gives you hints as you go along, but the payoff for your efforts really isn't worth it in the end. Still, the puzzles are good, and the game goes out of its way to bring you a fun and occasionally hilarious experience. Quantum Conundrum is worth a go, though you wouldn't miss out on too much if you waited for a sale.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Time Traveling Italians!

After months of basically not playing the game because I didn't have a decent-enough television to allow me to read the on-screen text that described what my goal was, the tutorials that told me how to do what I was supposed to do, etc., I have finally finished Assassin's Creed: Revelations, and somehow, months before Assassin's Creed 3 comes out! I know, it's a miracle, right?

Here's a bit of history between me and this game: ACRev was the first game I bought for my PS3 when I ordered it on Black Friday last year. I tried to work my way through the game, but the TV I found on Craigslist didn't give a clear enough image to let the game's tiny text be readable. This was annoying considering how many new concepts were introduced at the start of the game (bomb-making, den defense, rearranged buttons for old features), and especially when the tutorial bits would stay on the screen long enough for you to read the whole thing minus one line. Beyond this, for whatever reason, I would usually get a headache after trying to play any PS3 game for more than 20 minutes (though strangely, not anything on Xbox). So, ACRev sat on the shelf for a long time.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations, creditsWhen I recently resumed playing ACRev (on a less headache-inducing television), I have to admit, I forgot most of the plotline leading up to that point. This wasn't aided by the bizarre plethora of missions available at any point in time. You could do this mission over here where you would look for a hidden book for love-interest Sofia (who effectively served as the new Leonardo, decoding it and giving you new sites to check out). You could do that mission where you assist one of your fellow Assassins in some task. You could do that other mission that actually pertains to the plot of the game. In the end, at least some of these elements came together to form a coherent storyline, but probably not until about halfway through the game.

That's probably my biggest complaint about the game: Unlike in the past where side missions actually meant something, side missions here are little more than toys you can play with. For example, like in Brotherhood, you can recruit and send Assassins to do work for you in other cities. I think unlike the last game, they could knock a certain portion off of the Templars' control of that city, then once the city was "claimed" by the Assassins, it would slowly revert back to Templar control unless you kept sending Assassins there to do more tasks. By the end, I stopped caring about the other cities because this mindless economic exercise didn't even result in much change in the end; most cities became controlled by Templars again anyway. It was probably even a mindless economic exercise in ACBro as well, but it didn't hit home as such until this game proved the efforts to be futile.

Taking over the (local) Templar dens and converting them to Assassin dens allows you to unlock shops for renovation, just like the last game. Once your Assassins reach a certain experience level, you can appoint them to take charge of certain districts of the city, where if a series of other missions are accomplished, they can completely protect that region from attack. How does a den get attacked? Well, if you let your notoriety meter spike just a little to high and remain notorious, one of your dens will be attacked. Or at the very least, that's what I think is supposed to happen, because I never had this issue. Never mind that there was a big tutorial den defense game way back before I gave up playing, I never encountered that problem again. Which I'm thankful for, really, because throwing a tower defense-style game in the middle of the AC series is a really stupid idea, but still the fact that the possibility that it could happen, and then is completely preventable, leaves a sour taste in one's mouth.

But much to my surprise, ACRev is probably more of a story-driven game than its predecessors. Which is to say, its story was less crap than Brotherhood's. Near the end of the game, I played through a few missions that I'm surprised to admit struck an emotional chord with me, and especially after seeing the ending of the game (no spoilers here), those emotional moments were generously rewarded. I had to take a few moments to smack myself and remind myself that I still hated certain parts of the game and the entire game wasn't redeemed by the late-breaking awesomeness of the story. Still, while AC1's ending was a middle finger, AC2's was a strongly-shaken fist, and ACBro's was defecating one's trousers, ACRev's ending was probably the first point of satisfying closure the series has provided, though leaving the door open for more development in the future (obviously, if there's yet another sequel coming).

So to sum up this game way more quickly than any of the other games in the series, is it worth playing? Yes. Does it mean having to go back and play Brotherhood? Eugh... unfortunately, maybe, if only to get certain references that come up again here. Am I pre-ordering Assassin's Creed 3? Not yet. Maybe. I dunno. I'll probably jump on the boat months after everyone else does, as is my usual style. I'm sure I'll get around to it eventually though. Sadly, I no longer have my television to blame.

(Postscript: I haven't done much with the multiplayer, sorry. I'll get on that.)

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Lately I've complained a lot on here about games I haven't liked. How about something I do like? Probably the second game I purchased was Mercury Hg, a Labyrinth-esque (the ball-bearing kind) maze game with some interesting not-quite-puzzle elements. The object is to slide a drop (or drops) of mercury to a target area by tilting the entire game area, allowing the mercury to move with gravity. Along the way, there are bonus pickups to grab as well as moving platforms that might need to be activated by painting your mercury blob a different color and rolling over a handful of tiles. There are also magnets, conveyor belts, and holes that throw your mercury off the edge of the platform; lose too much, and it's game over.

Mercury HgFor each of the game's sixty levels, there are different targets to be reached for speed, the amount of mercury left in play, and how many bonuses you nab. On some levels, reaching these targets can unlock Bonus Levels (where you start out as a tiny blob and gather vials of mercury to make yourself larger) and Challenge Levels (strings of levels with combined time/mercury/bonus targets).

While some individual levels can be deviously frustrating, the overall difficulty of Mercury Hg is pleasantly middle-of-the-road. If you can't tackle all of the targets for a level at once, you can break the levels down into separate, more manageable runs. However, once some of these same levels enter into the Challenge and Bonus modes, the difficulty shoots through the roof as you try to grab 23 out of 24 bonuses in under three minutes with 100% of your starting mercury intact over the course of four levels (or something to that effect, you get the idea).

One thing that doesn't help is the camera movement in the game. While you can rotate the camera side-to-side fairly freely, you only seem to be able to zoom in and out via a weird curved camera track, which isn't helpful when you want to zoom in AND be directly above your blob. There's one level in particular (I think it was Iodine... Oh, did I mention the levels are laid out in the form of the periodic table of elements?) where you have two blobs that move through very high-walled mazes with holes in the ground, but you can't get a good angle to see the blobs and the layout of the maze at the same time.

The game itself costs 400MSP ($5), which is an absolutely fair price for a game like this. There are two expansion packs of 30 levels each available for 240MSP ($3) apiece, but they don't add too much to the game. A lot of expansion levels are rehashes of the gameplay ideas from the original levels. You'll feel like you've played the exact same level before, but not quite. Still, the basic package is well worth it on its own (unless you're an achievements chaser like myself), and I'd give it a strong recommendation. If you fancy a clever take on a classic game of skill, give Mercury Hg a shot.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

PAX East 2012, In Twenty Disorganized Thoughts

I went to PAX East in Boston this year. It's sad that I'm starting to write this post now, two weeks after the trip, but I swear, I had a lot going on between then and now, some of which is showcased below. This is going to be one crazy, disorganized post.

1. Driving Sucks
I broke down my trip into two parts both ways. I started by spending the night with some friends in Mansfield (about three hours from home) on Wednesday night, then drove the rest of the way to Boston (about seven hours) on Thursday. I've got to say, I'm really glad I broke the trip down, because I-88 and I-90 are terrifyingly depressing stretches of road to drive solo. I really wish I had a chatting buddy with me, as the limited supply of CDs I had in the car (half mix tapes of music, half Radiolab episodes) really couldn't keep my attention off of how freaking long I had to go. It didn't help that the GPS in my car was displaying my ETA, a time that seemed to go down a single minute for every three hours I went five over the speed limit, but jumped up three minutes every time I stopped at a toll booth for twenty seconds. Also: Toll booths. What the heck.

2. 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall
Having a Boston Lager in BostonThe last ten minutes of my drive into Boston was about an hour long. After exiting the turnpike, I found myself sitting at one traffic light for about thirty minutes, as it seemed to be where about ten lanes of traffic among four different ramps converged into one three-lane street. After finally finding my hotel (and shouting "LA QUINTA!" with embarrassing jubilation), I noticed that there was a restaurant across the street called Ninety Nine (or 99, I can't figure out which is the proper nomenclature). I made a mental note of the place, as I hadn't had any dinner yet. I checked into my hotel room (king size suite, because hey, it was the same price as the queen size) and found a menu for the restaurant sitting on the desk. Well played, Ninety Nine. Well played.

Sort of a New England-based Applebee's sort of place (except with far better food, service, and less likely to be where a girlfriend would dump me), I found myself there every night enjoying a meal. On the night I arrived, I got there in time for bar trivia, which I absolutely tanked at (but I tanked quite proudly). And yes, I had the obligatory pint of Boston Lager while in Boston. I mean, c'mon, you'd do it too. On the whole, I genuinely enjoyed the place, and I'd recommend stopping by one if you find yourself in the area.

3. Brought to You by the Letter T
As I mentioned before, I have a weird soft spot for public transportation. I was excited to use Boston's T for my travel back and forth between the hotel and the convention center. I still take pride in the fact that I can rattle off my route without any trouble (from Sullivan Square, take the Orange Line to Downtown Crossing, transfer to the Red Line and go to South Station, transfer to the Silver Line and go to World Trade Center). Since I was trying not to miss my frequent changeovers, I didn't have much time to let my mind wander like I usually do during the rides, but it was still a fun experience nonetheless.

4. Anticipay-yay-tion
A weird side note to the above: It's not hard to tell who's going to the convention center, particularly for a gaming conference. Never mind the cosplayers, you could tell the convention-goers apart because they always traveled in tight packs and stayed together on the trains. In addition, there was always a sense of anticipation in the air the closer you got to the convention center, and the anticipation grew as more people hopped on your train. When everyone hopped off the Red Line at South Station and crammed onto the Silver Line buses, you knew that the party was just getting started.

However, this effect also worked in reverse. Every night, I found myself hopping on a bus toward the red line with people, and everyone had that sort of afterglow of awesome about them. Then, as everyone split into different directions, there were fewer and fewer people with me, and the sense of unadulterated bliss wound back down into lonely sadness. I'm pretty sure I was the only convention-goer at my hotel, so the last stretch back to the hotel was always a bit depressing. If anything though, this just serves as a testament to how awesome the conference was.

5. Spoiler Alert, It Doesn't End Well
How awesome was the conference? Awesome enough that I don't think I'll go back.

Well, maybe. See, a large part of the reason I wanted to go to PAX East was to see if there was some way I could get my foot in the door working in the gaming industry at all. I even printed out ten resumes just in case. On Friday, I spent a decent amount of time going to sessions presented by different folks in the industry, much like any conference, except significantly awesome-r because the topic was gaming. Unfortunately, one of those sessions I went to was specifically on how to get into the gaming industry. The panel seemed to be a bunch of experienced, but overly-bitter folks who argued back and forth about whether it was better to have far too much on your resume to show off, or to have no resume at all and have some presentable product that you can hand to any potential employer in lieu of a resume proper. I have neither, and I don't foresee either happening soon. I graduated with a degree in broadcasting, not computer programming or graphic design or art or music (well, a minor in music), and I'm not in a position where I can readily turn around and go learn a(nother) new trade. So, I decided right then and there that as much as I love games, I could never make them for a living.

6. Let's Talk

However, however, however. One other thing I realized is that I do have that broadcasting experience, and the know-how to use it. Thus, on Saturday, the impromptu interviews began.

Having decided to skip out on any sessions I had planned to attend that day, I spent most of Saturday on the exhibition hall floor. Of all the big brand games that were featured, I found myself gravitating toward one cluster of booths. The Indie Megabooth was a collaboration of sixteen different independent developers who, rather than settling for tiny booths tucked along the outer walls of the hall, banded together to form a giant block of awesomeness smack dab in the mid-- eh, it was still kinda close to the edge. But it was still awesome. After I played around with a few of the games, I had an idea. I pulled out my camera and started to interview the developers about their games. Nothing too tremendous, just the basic "tell me about your game," "what platforms," and "release date" questions. Later, after returning home, I strung them together to make this video.
The video was featured on Jay is Games, but don't click the link yet! There are spoilers for later stuff in there!

7. He Wasn't Wearing a Pink Suit
I'd like to take a moment to pull some of those awesome Indie Megabooth entries aside and give them a little more attention. One game I'm particularly looking forward to is Antichamber, which is sort of like other first-person puzzle games like Portal 2 in the sense that OH MY GOD WOW WOW WOW. The world of Antichamber plays a lot with M.C. Escher-like "physics" where you have infinite staircases and rooms that seem to double back on themselves as if the entire room has changed its position. I didn't record this bit in the interview, but I was talking to the developer, Alexander Bruce, and he said that he wanted to make a game that broke every possible conventional gaming rule that you're used to. At the very start of the game you see a chasm with the word "JUMP" floating over it. Your instinct is to jump, expecting to make it across the gap. Absolutely not. That which you think you know coming into the game is ultimately challenged in one form or another in Antichamber, and it takes careful observation and fantastic lateral thinking skills to make it through the game. I managed to play a portion of the game, with a crowd of people watching my moves on a TV. Without spoiling anything, there was one puzzle that one member of the crowd blurted out the answer to. The developer, looking to give me a hint, pointed out what he said to me, and I responded honestly, "I would have never thought of that. That's amazing." Seriously, I absolutely can't wait for this game to come out. It's that awesome.

8. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA! A Reckless Disregard for Fanboyishness
If there's one interview I feel I really screwed up in my impromptu reporting, it was the one with Dejobaan Games. As I was preparing for the trip, I thought about what game companies I knew that were actually based in Boston and wouldn't be traveling from the west coast just to be here. I was excited when I realized that Dejobaan was from Boston. I think I actually did a fist pump in the laundry room when the thought occurred to me. Yeah, I was that excited.

Lo and behold, Dejobaan was featuring two games at the Indie Megabooth. One was Force=MassxAcceleration, an iPad port of their AaaAAA! skydiving games, and a new prototype called Drunken Robot Pornography, where you faced off against a year's worth of mechanical robotic centerfolds that got progressively harder as you went along. Quite cool-looking. There were plenty of jellyfish-laden red shirts in their portion of the booth, and I pulled one (Elliot Borenstein) aside for the interview. Somehow, things went wrong at this point. Dejobaan was the second interview I did, and I hadn't really nailed down a specific format for the questions I wanted to ask. That, plus the fact that I'm a bit of a Dejobaan fanboy left me awkwardly speechless near the end of our interview as I struggled to come up with anything to ask him. Things went pretty smoothly after that, but I feel terrible about how unprofessional I was at that time. Elliot, if you're somehow reading this, I'm really sorry. Also, why are you Googling yourself? Get back to DRP. Or make me some more TWEOTW levels.

9. Break In, Break Out, Break Down
One fun thing about playing these games and talking to the developers was getting to be unsuspecting beta testers. Monaco is a top-down maze-slash-heist game, described to me by creator Andy Schatz as "Pac-Man meets Hitman." On each level, you can see the layout of the area like a floor plan, but all of the traps and enemies remain hidden until you've actually "spotted" them in your line of vision, which is a really cool touch. Before I spoke with Andy about his game, I sat down at one of the laptops set up and played a bit of a single-player game (seriously, the multiplayer looks way too crazy for me to handle). I got a few levels in playing as the Lockpick when the game suddenly froze up on me. After a few moments of hesitation, the laptop then rebooted and went to a crazy BIOS setup screen. I sat in the chair, shocked and afraid I was about to be killed for destroying their computer. Luckily, Andy came over and said it was a known issue (I think it had something to do with the laptop's video card) and that they were working on it.

But yeah, Monaco looks cool, and I'm looking forward to it coming out as well. It'll be a while before I tackle the multiplayer though.

10. Future to the Back
All of the games in the Indie Megabooth looked really awesome, but I wanted to give one more really quick shout-out for Retro/Grade, which hails itself as the first video game played entirely in reverse, credits to tutorial. I'm going to get my time travel terminology completely wrong here, but due to a rift in the space-time continuum, an entire space war has to be undone in order to preserve the universe. Thus, you've got to line your ship up with the shots that you fired moving back toward your gun, as well as dodge your enemies' bullets moving back toward theirs in reverse. I didn't get the chance to sit down and play this one, and I'm not describing it that well here, but this is definitely another game I'm looking forward to.

11. Of My Own Volition
Right next door to the Indie Megabooth was a selection of six more indie developers selected as the Boston Indiecade, featured by the convention itself. Rather stupidly, I didn't grab any interviews, but I tried most of the games and talked with the developers. One game that caught my attention was SpellTower, a sort of Boggle/Tetris hybrid game for mobile devices where you clear words to prevent rising stacks of letters from reaching the top of the screen. I'm not wholly sure the concept is actually that novel, but the sleek presentation and varied gameplay makes this game quite fun. However, the highlight for me was when I picked up one of the demo iPads and started playing the game myself. I'm sort of a word game nut, so without realizing it, I was quickly approaching the high score on the iPad. What I didn't realize that that wasn't a convention high score, that was the developer's own high score. I was playing on the developer's own iPad, and I clobbered his score with something like 6400 to his 5500. The developer wasn't at the booth at the moment, but his roommate was standing guard, and he was freaking out with every ridiculous word I made (I somehow pulled out VOLITION for about 500 points in one turn). In a really weird schadenfreude-istic way, this was a major highlight to my Sunday afternoon.

12. Of Assassins and Men
I didn't do too much with the bigger label games, but I did find myself waiting a half hour to see a demo video of Assassin's Creed 3. We were ushered into a small theatre where we sat on wooden crates and were asked to put our cameras away. To which I genuinely ask, why? You've already produced a video for the purposes of showing the general public what's going on with your game, and you've certainly not made us sign waivers that prevent us from telling anyone else about what we've seen. Particularly retrospectively, some of the things they were showing in this movie were features that would make for fantastic selling points for the game, why would they want to keep them faux-hidden like that? Isn't the point of publicity to make things public?

That all having been said, here are some points I recall from watching the movie.
  • The clip opens with the protagonist riding to a battlefield on a horse. I almost burst out laughing, and we were hardly twenty seconds into the movie.
  • The missions give you more options for play, for example, a "stealth" route and an "action" route, depending on how you like to play the game. Nice touch, though I'd bet they'd always make one option or the other the "full synchronization" option, meaning completionists probably won't have the liberty this decision implies.
  • The protagonist (note I'm trying to dodge recalling his name... Connor Somethingorrather is at least his English name, never mind his actual Native American name) reacts more to environment events (such as a cannonball kicking up dirt right next to him). Make of this information what you will.
  • More MOTWYW information: Troops stay in lines/blocks/clusters like they did in the war, you auto-crouch when hiding in tall grass, and you seem to have allies and enemies on both sides of the war, for various Assassin/Templar reasons.
  • They made a big deal about the trees in this game. Unlike previous games where you have a lot of architecture to play around with, it was implied that you'll be spending a lot of time on battlefields and other naturey places. They talked about the challenges of making trees not just look like random Ts for you to jump around on, and how you can "more intuitively" walk from branch to branch of a tree by hugging the trunk. That's all well and good, but the killer for the whole deal for me came near the end of the tree speech, when a few rogue leaves blocked the camera view for a moment, just as they had with every freaking game before this. They just don't learn, do they?
  • Weapons, then. Yes, you've still got the famous double-blade, but there's more emphasis put on a period-appropriate tomahawk. Also, a demonstration of the rope-dart, which is a dart on a rope. Brilliant. More brilliantly, you can spear someone from a tree, then lower yourself down elevator-style to the ground level (pulling your enemy's corpse up to branch-level). A bit of comic relief came from this bit, when the developer paused the video here to talk about the upcoming fight sequence, then adding on at the end, "Also, that guy's feet are still dangling there. We liked that part."
  • The big assassination finale happens right as the screen fades to white, but I'm sure it's just like every other assassination we've seen so far, where the protagonist and the victim have a long chat on the ground before the protagonist does his "In pace resquiat" bit and tenderly caresses his prey... or was I just imagining that bit? Don't judge me.
And then I left the theatre and I got a free inflatable tomahawk.

13. Blitzkrieg Bop
One mainstream thing I'm looking forward to is Rock Band Blitz. It'll apparently be released first for XBLA (if not elsewhere eventually), and it plays like a single-player redux of the Rock Band games. You've got five or so tracks to play, each representing a different instrument/part of the song. As you switch to that track, your performance is reflected in how well/poorly that bit of the music plays in the background. You have the freedom to switch tracks at any time, but you can only get a high score by leveling up all of the tracks equally. You can't fail a song, you just score less. To be honest, the whole thing feels way more casual in a very PopCap sort of way (complete with the glitzy "Clear" screen at the end of each song), and I'm perfectly fine with that.

That's all swell and good, but here's the weird bit: Each track only has two notes to play. It's just left or right, and very rarely deviating from a pattern that just seems to alternate L/R/L/R along with the rhythm of the music. Having experienced far fiercer games like Sequence, this is a bit of a letdown, but I can understand how having more buttons could be a bit daunting for the target audience this game is probably targeted at. I'm still cool with it though, and I'm looking forward to this game being available.

14. I'm Pretty Good at Pokerface on Easy
Speaking of Harmonix (oh, I guess we were speaking of Harmonix?), there was a nice huge stage with two side-by-side games of Dance Central 2 going on. People were lining up in pairs to play with friends, and I stood by and watched a bit. I've not tackled too much of Dance Central, but I'm familiar with how the game works. For each song, there are three difficulty levels, and you can choose to "break it down" and learn each of the steps in the song one by one before going into "performance mode". As I watched people play, I assumed there were going to be some horrible performances mixed in with the brilliant players.

That, I found out, was incredibly false. Everyone that I saw hop up on that stage came to freaking perform. Always the hardest difficulty, always straight to performance mode. And they did crazy well. (Side note: You've not seen how amazing this game can be until you've seen a TF2 Medic dancing his heart out.) It was at this point that I had a somewhat sad revelation about Dance Central. I always imagined Dance Central would be a fun party game that just about anyone can jump right into and play along, like at a party. This is extremely not true. In fact, it falls into that class of game where you have to work your butt off to not only unlock later parts of the game, but you have to devote large portions of your time to memorizing the game to perfection (as in, on one playthrough I saw, the commands actually disappeared for half the song). It's right back to Guitar Hero and Super Smash Brothers, where to access more content, you have to be good, but once you're too good, no one wants to play with you because you'll just beat them. I'm not sure I'm comfortable playing a game like that. Granted, I've lent my Kinect to a friend, so I won't even see the game for a while, but seeing these people performing like that really put a huge damper on the game for me.

15. Oh, What Was That One Thing, With the Colors and the Beams and the...
I'm blanking here, but there was another cool game I liked. It was one where you played a ship flying through a tube with colored blocks along the way. You would grab a block of one color, then another block of the same color, which would propel you through the tube faster. And you'd keep making pairs to pull yourself through the level, and try to pass through the auras surrounding the blocks without actually hitting the blocks... I think it was called Dyad? I'm not sure. But it looked cool.

16. Kids in the Hall
It was Saturday night, and I was looking for something to do. I went up to the second floor of the convention center, turned the corner, and walked into someone rolling on the ground. Little did I know that I stepped into a game called Ninja.

As I quickly learned, Ninja is played with a group of people starting out in a circle. On the leader's count, everyone strikes their favorite ninja pose (or just strike any old pose), and going in clockwise order around the order (and staying in that order, even after the circle breaks apart), each person takes a turn making one fluid motion to try to tag another person's hand with their own. (The phrase "one fluid motion" is a bit vague, but when you start to play, you can quickly figure out what's one motion and what's not.) If you miss or if you don't attack, you have to hold your stance until the next turn, unless if you're being attacked; then, you're allowed one fluid motion to take a defensive position, using the same rules as above.

I played a few rounds of this game and had a ton of fun. (In the video above, I'm just off the camera in the black shirt.) After many failed dives to attack opponents (one of which resulting in a pretty nasty rugburn that's still healing), I ended up winning the last game I played that night before I had to leave to catch the trains back to the hotel. It just goes to show that among all the organized awesomeness, these cool little impromptu games can pop up and be just as entertaining.

17. Another Reason to Hate the Sessions
I forgot to mention this before: Before any session began, there was always a separate queueing room where you had to line up to enter the session. Getting there early sometimes guaranteed you a decent seat, or it might screw you over further depending on how they filled the hall in. It really sucked, since it took away from time you could've been doing something else. It was a necessary evil though, considering how many people attended some sessions.

18. James Portnow: The Man, The Myth, The Legend (in no particular order)
Right, so this particular story takes a long time to tell. To set this up, here's some pertinent information: Extra Credits is a video lecture series of sorts started by/starring Daniel Floyd, written by James Portnow, and with artwork by Allison Theus. In it, all sorts of topics relating to games, the gaming industry, and gaming culture are discussed. Seriously, go watch all eighty-some episodes now. You won't regret it. I can't remember if it was one or two years ago now, but Allison had to have some major shoulder surgery done, but her insurance wouldn't cover the operation. Considering her main profession is art, this was a really big thing. The Extra Credits crew decided to set up a RocketHub fundraiser to take donations to support Allison's surgery. The initial goal of the fundraiser was $15,000 in 60 days. I'm making up numbers here, but by the end of the first day, they had something like over $60,000 in donations.

Me with James PortnowOn Friday, I was walking around on the exhibition hall floor when out of nowhere, James Portnow came up to me, said, "Thank you!" and hugged me. I didn't realize it until after the fact, but James apparently spotted the Extra Credits t-shirt I was wearing, which was a gift for donors to Allison's surgery fund. After we exchanged a few quick words, I got my picture taken with him, and we both continued on our way. The more I think about it, the entire episode, with him (the celebrity) randomly walking up and hugging me (the civvy), should have been far more awkward than it was, but instead it was really awesome.

Right after this, I scurried out of the expo hall and hopped on my netbook to share the photo with the JIG editors just to make them jealous (because I'm a horrible person). I'm not sure how it happened, but from the short discussion we had, I decided I would try to get an interview with the Extra Credits crew for the site. (Note that this happened before I had my not-games-but-broadcasting revelation.) I knew that I could see Daniel, James, and Allison at the Extra Credits session later that night, so I arrived 40 minutes early for the session. (It wasn't nearly early enough.)

Sadly, neither Daniel nor Allison could make it to PAX due to varying work circumstances, so the panel was just James until he pulled up a few other random developers he spotted in the audience to help him field questions. (Also: this happened.) After the panel proper ended, James stuck around in the hallway for a long time taking more questions and autographing random objects for people. I waited patiently for my chance to ask him if he could spare ten minutes at some point in time for an interview for the site. At the very least, I knew that James was familiar with Jay is Games as he and Daniel had mentioned it as a good review site in a live Q&A stream they did once. The crowd eventually whittled down to about ten people, and I thought I was going to get to ask him for the interview time, but he said he could only take one more question before he had to go. Not wanting to lose the opportunity, I quickly pulled out the notebook in my pocket and scrawled out a quick note. "Are you available for 10-20 minutes tomorrow to do a short interview for" I listed JIG's Twitter handle, my Twitter handle, and my cell phone number. As he started to pull away to his next gig, I slipped the note to him and told him to respond at his leisure. And that was the end of my Friday at PAX East.

Among all the interviews I was doing with the Indie Megabooth folks, I kept checking my cell phone to see if I had gotten any sort of reply from James (or a forwarded reply from the JIG editors, who controlled the JIG Twitter). Nothing. At around 3 o'clock or so, I left the exhibition hall to hop in the staging queue for a session I wanted to attend (at 4 o'clock... I finally learned my lesson with those stupid queues). To pass the time, I decided to check my email and Twitter in the queue. I got no response, but I spotted another tweet from James saying he'd be at the Digipen Institute booth from 4 to 4:30. Dang. So there it was, possibly my last chance to talk with him about an interview. I ended up leaving the queue and waiting at the booth for James to show up, with my netbook of questions, tripod, and camera at the ready. He showed up, he answered questions, he signed more things, and then he was on his way again, and I still didn't have any interview lined up.

But this time, I wasn't going to let him off as easily. As he and a couple other people (at least one of whom I'm assuming was either a girlfriend or spouse, I'm not sure) made their way through the exhibition hall toward the front exit, I followed closely behind, trying to pack away my gear as I walked, while still trying to keep James in my sights. Either James was really good at ignoring me or he genuinely didn't see this bumbling idiot following him with crazy amounts of gear in hand. It wasn't until he reached the front door of the convention center that I decided to interrupt him and ask him if he had any time for the interview. To my surprise, he not only remembered me from the night before, but he still had the note I handed him in his jacket pocket. He confirmed that it was my contact information, and he said he'd send me a message later that night. No specific time, but he said he'd get a hold of me.

And for the time being, that was that. I finally sort of got what I wanted, and I was sort of satisfied with that. I stopped in to catch the tail end of the session I wanted to see, then later found myself lying on the floor of the convention center, with my netbook and camera batteries charging on the floor behind me. Honestly, it was nice to just lie down and relax for a bit. I ate my lunch, which was the Pop-Tarts I had stuck in my pocket back in the hotel room, at seven o'clock. By the way, this was my normal dietary habit for the weekend. I ate the free breakfast at the hotel room in the morning, then didn't eat anything until the Pop-Tarts around 7, then a midnight snack back at the Ninety Nine before I went to bed.

Around 8, I found myself wandering around the convention center and stumbled upon the Ninja game. (Isn't it cool how all these stories are coming together now?) I played a few rounds with everyone, scraped up my leg with the rugburn, etc. All of a sudden, around 9, I saw James and his undisclosed female acquaintance coming around the corner. I immediately left the Ninja circle, grabbed my bags, and gave chase. Down the hallway, I finally caught up with James once again.

And I got the interview.

I should add that before I started recording, he asked me if I had a business card he could have for further contact. I didn't have any business cards. That was probably my biggest regret from the trip, not having business cards. A lot of the folks I interviewed at the Indie Megabooth asked if I had business cards so they could keep in touch as well. But I didn't have any business cards. But I had ten resumes! (See, it's all coming together now!) So I gave James a resume, and he stuck it inside his jacket, just like with the note. And... well, that portion of the anecdote sorta falls flat right there, but it was cool that I was networking in a small way.

Also, I asked James another question that didn't make the above cut. On a personal note, I asked him if he saw much of a calling for games outside of video games, for example, games on television or radio or movies. He said yes, there's tremendous opportunities for games elsewhere in society, and that we've got to potential to make them happen anywhere, anytime. He even referenced the game of Ninja he passed by in the hallway as an example. Games are such an integral part of our culture that we're bound to find games elsewhere.

This interview experience with James confirmed a few things within my mind. One, I've really got to pursue a job in the broadcasting field a little more fiercely. Two, via that same highway, it's still entirely possible to get a job working with games. Perhaps not video games per se, but games in other media. Three, I am one creepy man. Seriously, I stalked a guy around for the better portion of a day? That's just plain not right. Granted, it was for the sake of journalism, but still, that do-anything-for-the-story attitude has got to mean something's wrong with me. Maybe I'll end up writing for tabloids. (I really hope I don't end up writing for tabloids.)

19. Cooling Down
But what of that Saturday session I missed to try to schedule the interview with James? That session was the "Pitch Your Game Idea" session. Again, I don't know what all went on in the session since I came in for only the last ten minutes or so of it, but I was a bit irritated I didn't get to try my hand at pitching a game idea. Nonetheless, I stuck around afterward and managed to get a word in with one of the judges, Gordon Bellamy, one of the big names at the International Game Developers Association. However, I didn't ask him about games. I said, "I really enjoyed you on Million Dollar Mind Game." He burst out laughing, then fake crying, then we had a great little chat about game shows and we geeked out a bit and it was all sorts of awesome. He gave me his business card and asked for mine, which I didn't have (SEE?). I should've grabbed a picture with him. Dang. Not sure why I didn't, really.

20. Okay, But Seriously, Would You Do It Again? I guess I ducked this question earlier, so now I should really come back and give a proper answer. Would I do PAX East again? Or PAX Prime out in Seattle? My answer is yes, but I'd have to be approaching it very differently from how I did this time. I'd love to go strictly as a press person and interview as many developers as I could. I'd love to go as an exhibitor or panelist with something fantastic on my resume to talk about. I'm not sure I'd enjoy going as a straight observer again, but I wouldn't speak ill of it for anyone else who would want to go. PAX East was a fantastic experience, and I'll cherish the memories of the mysteriously non-awkward hug, the fiercest rugburn I ever received, and the motivation I needed to write a puzzle book.

Oh, I'm working on writing a puzzle book. That was also a thing that happened.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fez, Part 2

For reasons I'm not entirely sure of, I'm putting this in a separate post. I've almost completely finished Fez, though I'm still a bit shy of the ending for reasons that I'll explain later. I feel that I needed to write some sort of follow-up post to my previous entry, in which I pretty much ripped Fez to shreds. The post was incredibly unfair, as I based most of my opinions on my tired, unpleasant experience with the first ending in the game. If I had been truly professional about the experience, I would have played the game through to the end in order to take in the full meaning of not only that ending, but the post-game that followed. For that, I apologize for my horrible reporting the first time around.

Note that I'm not wholly redacting my first post though. Certain elements of my opinion still stand. The game is based on a mechanic that, between the time of announcement and release, has been duplicated by other games, and isn't used to the extent that it probably could have been used here. I was asked by a friend if my experience would have been changed if there weren't a five-year waiting period between announcement and release. I responded that the mechanic, no matter how you slice it, still gets old quickly, but without the time for copycats to come along and steal my attention, it might've held my interest for a little bit longer.

What's changed between my first posting and now? I have since chosen that "New Game +" mode, and I'm satisfied to note that it's a continuation of the first game that happens to start very similarly to the opening scenes the first time you play, but with a certain extra element given to your character allowing new puzzles to be unlocked (I'm trying to avoid spoilers this time). Those spoilers held my interest for a while, but eventually you realize that there are only so many new puzzles added; they're just repeated several times in different ways or places. For example (and I don't think this is too much of a spoiler), on one island with a clock tower, there are four bonus cubes that can be unlocked, allegedly on the schedule with one appearing once every minute, one once every hour, one once every day, and one appearing once every week. That's what I'm stuck on now. I have about two more days to wait to grab that last cube, that final cube that will let me finally finish the game with a proper ending. So yes, there's also an element of frustration that comes with some of the puzzles' designs.

So where does that leave me? I'm going to stick by the opinion I posted last time, and that's that you should try the demo and see how you feel about the game.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Ha, a tie for my shortest blog post title! Words are so much fun.

(Please note that this review will contain spoilers for the ending of Fez. I'll give another warning later when I hit the spoilers.)

Fez, that long-awaited perspective-based puzzle platformer, has finally hit XBLA for 800MSP ($10). You play as Gomez, a man who lives in a flat world with lots of squares until plotline plotline plotline and suddenly everything has depth. By rotating the world 90 degrees at a time, you can line up platforms to reach new places and collect cube fragments to unlock new worlds.

On the whole, it's an interesting mechanic, but it's not new. Or at least, it's not new anymore. Fez was first announced in 2007, and in the years that have passed, other games have come along that used the same rotating-perspective gameplay (I reviewed one for JIG here). When I heard that Fez was finally going to be released, I reacted with cautious joy, since I knew this game had to be absolutely amazing in order to live up to all the hype it received over the years. I started to play the game, and it already felt like the magic of this wonderful new mechanic was already gone.

Normally, a game like this would already be dead in the water for me, but despite the puzzle of jumping from one platform to another then rotating and doing it all over again having no novelty, I found a puzzle simply in the navigation system of the game. Each section of the world is connected via doorways in a larger three-dimensional meta-map, which baffled me at first. Lines seemed to connect one place to another like a flowchart made of a bowl of spaghetti. Somehow, the game around the mechanic, rather than the mechanic in the game, was more entertaining to me than anything else. Where solving ways to get from point A to point B was no longer interesting, navigating my way across the world was more fascinating to me.

NOTE: SPOILERS START HERE. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of stumbling on the end of the game a bit too quickly. It's safe to say that in collecting only half of the total number of cubes available in the game, what I was was the "bad ending." If ever a bad ending was to be had though, this was probably the least logical and trippiest bad ending I've ever seen. Rather than the game saying "Yay, you did it, but you didn't do enough! Go back and do some more," the ending consisted of a bizarre dance of geometric figures like a horrible old screen saver. I'm still not even sure I found the bad ending. It might've been the good ending. Or perhaps the only ending. I'm not comfortable with that.

What's probably more irritating is that in completing the game, my progress appears to have been erased. Or at the very least, I no longer have a "continue game" option on the main menu, but I now have a "start new game+" option. I've stepped away from the console for the night, but I can't help but feel that this probably means that all the hard work and exploring I did have been wiped out needlessly. (Watch this space for an edit, I'll see if I was right tomorrow.) Certainly a better ending could be ascertained by replaying the game to full completion, but I'm not sure I could be convinced to redo everything I've done before once again. SPOILERS END HERE.

My experience with Fez, though limited, has been very bipolar. First I was underwhelmed, then I was enthralled, then I was let down again. I really don't want to chalk up a third mostly-negative review in a row, but there's something about Fez, be it something in its story (or potential lack thereof), or its now-less-than-novel mechanics, or something that makes the game oddly irritating. I stress however that your mileage may vary, and encourage you to play through the demo at the very least. Please don't just go by my sleepy, jaded opinion on this one; experience the game for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Let Me Save You Ten Bucks

3SwitchedI'll keep this short and sweet: Don't buy 3SwitcheD. It's a dull knockoff of too many matching puzzles (two Bejeweled clone levels, two Atomica clone levels, two samegame clone levels) to have any originality in its gameplay. Its only remaining selling point is how you can use a webcam to track your facial movements, and the screen follows where you turn your head, except it doesn't even do this well. In the end, there's really nothing new to see here. I mean, c'mon, they couldn't have even thought of something other than gems to swap? Criminy.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ten Reasons Why I Won't Buy Rise of Nightmares

I'm visiting a friend this weekend, and I decided to bring my Xbox and Kinect with me. Upon his insistence, I downloaded the Rise of Nightmares demo. Apparently, it was one of the first (possibly the only?) Kinect games to incorporate heavy doses of violence in a horror atmosphere. After I played through the demo on my own, I forced him to play through it. As revenge.

Yeah, it was that bad.

1. If your intention is to set up a horrifying atmosphere, don't start off the game with a confusing and hilarious cutscene involving a mad scientist seemingly faking a phone call with his wife as an excuse to leave the room.
2. Turning the camera by rotating your shoulders is okay, but there's always a bit of backwards turning when you return to the "forward" position, which is annoying. Also, no looking forward or down.
3. Forward and backward motion by putting one leg forward or backward is... awkward. Allegedly, how far you put your leg forward or backward changes the speed at which you move, but your character (apparently your name is Josh) only seems to move at one speed: Half-saunter.
4. No sideways movement. Expect to spend a lot of time smearing your face into the wall because you've overturned and can't right yourself.
5. The game encourages you to perform certain commands as though you were doing them in real life. For example, when you see a door, you grab the handle and pull it open, right? Wrong. Every door is pushed open, regardless of whether you're on the push or pull side of it. Brilliant.
6. See something that needs killed? Put your arms up in a guarded position, and flail. It doesn't seem to matter what weapon you're holding, a flailing motion seems to make it go.
7. Your traveling companion (who does pretty much nothing beyond a very awkward scamper behind you) randomly gets killed by a giant guillotine. His dying words? "I knew I would die here!" Okay.
8. At one point, you're introduced to an icon that lets you take a break while the computer moves you to the next objective by raising your right arm. This saves a decent amount of trouble, except when it keeps returning you to a dead end. Keep holding your arm up, and it keeps repeating the error message.
9. How many times can the same horror movie cliche be pumped into one game? Too much, apparently. Do a thing with no one else in the room, turn around to see a line of zombies approaching you. Every. Single. Time.
10. Even if it's a horror game in which everything is out to kill you solely for the purposes of killing you, I'd still expect at least a little bit of logic to come into play. If I'm in a room with a whole bunch of zombies, and I kill all of these zombies, why does a previously unmovable door suddenly open? It'd be hypocritical for me to say that sort of cause-and-effect is unreasonable, since it's worked for titles as old as The Legend of Zelda. On the other hand, The Legend of Zelda didn't try to make itself out as a realistic (heh) survival horror game. It's moments like this that you become painfully aware that you're playing a very specific role in a very generic movie.

What starts out as a decent concept for an action game is made intensely frivolous by how broken it is. I wouldn't've anticipated many people enjoying this game, though another friend really loved kicking during the fight scenes. I, on the other hand, felt less ridiculous during the freestyle dance segments in Dance Central (you have to take my word for this). Any sense of horror is killed off right at the beginning of the demo, so all one could hope for with this game is a gory, slow slog through a cinematic. I will not buy this game.

Monday, February 27, 2012

My Nanoblogging Is Your Microblogging - Episode 5

This post was mostly written while watching an episode of Castle. It's really hard to write while watching Castle.

19. On Jan Berenstain
Here's a story I've never really told anyone before. I can't remember what semester it was, but I took Composition II, which was more like "Do a Bunch of Book Reports for a Grade 2202". We read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. Not a bad book, really. The first two-thirds of the book, talking about the science and culture of food, are a bit dry, but the latter third where he discusses the things one can do to one's diet sparked a few interesting discussions in class. After a really good chat one day in class, I walked out the door and thought to myself, "I really want to interview Jan Berenstain."

I have no idea why that thought popped in my mind, but it did. I mulled over the idea for a while, and I decided I would try interviewing her. I thought up a shortlist of other people I'd love to interview. I figured, set up Skype so that I could record the calls, then share the interviews here on this blog. Unfortunately, due to procrastination and technical incompetence, none of these interviews ever happened.

Tonight, I found out that Jan Berenstain has passed away. This is sad news on multiple levels. One, rather selfishly, I know I've blown my chance to get that interview I've always wanted. Two, more importantly, a huge part of my childhood has passed away. Our family has a huge stack of Berenstain Bears books sitting on a shelf somewhere, all of which I'm sure I've read at least a few dozen times each. I understand that Stan and Jan Berenstain's sons have gotten involved in the family business, but it'll still feel weird knowing that such a huge part of my childhood is gone. Thank you, Jan, for your hand in my upbringing, you will be missed.

20. Ped Xing Reboot
In case you missed it, I finally rebooted my personal portfolio website, Ped Xing Productions. The only thing I think I'm missing is the Contact page, as I'm still trying to figure out the best way to post contact information in a way that won't bring in tons of spam. If you have any suggestions, contact me via the Conta-- oh. Leave a comment here, a'ight?

21. 1000 Letters on 1000 Amps
1000 Amps is a puzzle platformer released last week on Steam in which you control a little robot bloke, trying to restore the light in a world of darkness. As you move around, the blocks you touch are revealed; hopefully you can stumble on the all-white light blocks that set the entire room aglow if all are found. Your ability to move around and fight off enemies relies on how many light blocks you've uncovered. As such, each room starts out as a guessing game, where you've got to deduce where it's safe to walk, or else you might fall through a hole to the next room below. This is a rather frustrating mechanic, considering you usually have to trek around five or more rooms just to get back to that point to try again, though if you can't remember how you screwed up six rooms ago, you're doomed to repeat the same mistake. Worse, the power-ups you get over the course of the game are really hard to anticipate, so you can't tell when you should just desert a room and come back to it when you're better prepared to handle it. On the whole, 1000 Amps is an okay game, but the incessant trial-and-error-ness of the game is irritating. I'd recommend grabbing this if it's on sale, but be prepared for some frustration.

22. The Assassin's Dilemma, Revisited
Assassin's Creed 3 will apparently be released on October 30th. Will I set aside the money now in an envelope and hang it on my bedroom wall until preorders are available? Eh... Well, I've posted more about the AC series on this blog than any other game franchise (unless if you count the dozens of subtle nods to Portal), but I think my love for the series is starting to dry up. Just as Ezio was young, fun, and playful in Assassin's Creed 2, which I consider the highlight of the series so far, Ezio feels old and cranky in Assassin's Creed: Revelations, which is where I'm stuck right now. I'm having a hard time forcing myself to finish the game, especially when the plot feels far disconnected from the rest of the franchise (and I say this knowing full well that the previous games very logically lead to this point). I don't have any hatred for the series as a whole, but I'm just having a hard time getting the motivation to move forward with it. So, sorry, Ezio... No envelope for you. I'll likely end up getting it, but I'm in no rush.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Quick Review of Q.U.B.E.

Dear game makers, please make more games that start with the letter Q so I can keep recycling this title setup.

Q.U.B.E. (Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion) is a first-person puzzle game that borrows heavily from the Portal aesthetic of clean white walls and playing your way through tutorials disguised as spatial puzzles right until the end. Instead of the famous portal gun, you're now given fancy gloves that can manipulate blocks on the walls around you. These blocks are color-coded so you know exactly what they do. For example, red blocks can be pulled straight out of the walls (up to three units long), while yellow blocks come in clusters of three that must all be pulled out at once, but at different lengths (making a staircase shape). Using these blocks, you've got to move objects around the rooms and climb your way to the next level.

The above is a bit of an oversimplification of the puzzles in Q.U.B.E. Really, they're quite complex, in that Portal sort of way where you have the tools, but you have to figure out new ways to use them, particularly as new elements are introduced (balls that have to be filtered into different holes, cubes that have to be positioned correctly to redirect beams of light). The mix of puzzles is quite satisfying, save for one annoying section of puzzles done in the dark, as the darkness doesn't add anything but unnecessary difficulty.

The story, on the other hand, is far from Portalesque. In fact, as much as the game tries to gesture at a story being there, I just can't find it. You wake up in a room, just like Portal, but you don't have the benefit of GLaDOS to give you the basic instructions as you go. Perhaps the game assumes that everyone is familiar with Portal, and that the clean white walls instantly signals your goal is to escape from whatever facility you're in. This is, in this case, true, but even after having completed the game, I don't feel satisfied that I've accomplished anything more than solving the puzzles and getting to the next room umpteen times.

At this point, I should throw in that I'm a bit bitter about this game, as I worked my way through much of the game pretty quickly, but upon resuming one day, the game would only crash when I tried to load my save file. It took a while for the developers to fix this issue, and when the patch finally came, it turned out that I was stuck right before the final puzzle in the game. I lost a hearty chunk of love for this game right then, having to wait for an unsatisfying conclusion. It's taken me a couple of weeks since that patch to start writing this post.

Despite the lacking story and the glitch I had to deal with, the puzzles more than carry this game. Is it enough to justify a $15 price tag? Absolutely not, but considering it's an indie start-up title, it's forgiveable. I'd personally recommend waiting for a good enough sale to grab it, but whatever you do, please be sure to grab it at some point in time and play it if only for the puzzles alone. If you loved the progressing spacial puzzles of Portal, Q.U.B.E. will feel right at home for you.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Quick Review of Quarrel

QuarrelAbout time I started reviewing proper console games, eh? Quarrel, released yesterday for XBLA (earlier on iOS), is a word/strategy hybrid game that plays like a mix of the Letters rounds on Countdown and the board game Risk. The goal of the game is to capture the entire map through a series of battles. Rather than using dice, you use letters. Eight letters are given (for which there is at least one perfect anagram); your goal is to make the highest-scoring single word from those letters, hopefully higher than your opponent's selection. The twist is that the length of your word is limited to however many men are in your attacking/defending territory, so actually playing the vicious 8-letter anagram rarely happens. If you get the higher-scoring word, you successfully capture your opponent's territory (or block their advance if you're defending).

Quarrel comes packed in a tremendously entertaining world, almost parodying itself with how seriously silly the game is (such as the over-the-top DUN-DUN-DAAAAAH music sting when a player's last territory is targeted). The subtle humor of the atmosphere of the game is played up perfectly between the tense "hope my word is good enough" moments. While the gameplay is certainly fun (at least for a word game freak like myself), I can't help but feel the strategic side of the game is a bit screwy. I don't know if comebacks are readily possible when each game is small enough to begin with (I think the standard formula is 4 territories per player); the somewhat linear shapes of the boards might not help this issue at all. That's not to say it's impossible to have upset moments, like a territory of 3 defending itself against an attacker of 8 (not that I'm bragging), but the winner sometimes becomes a little too obvious too early on.

Still, it's nice to have a strategy game like this that uses skill more than it does luck. I feel like when I lose a territory, it's actually my fault, rather than trying to pin the blame on bad dice. Close games can still be quite tense, especially when a tied round goes to whoever submitted their word first. The game knows when to tease you that little bit longer, just to make the reveal of the win/loss all the more amazing. Plus, the word list in this game is comfortably large, and the AI players have a pretty good range of difficulties between them. At a pleasantly low 400MSP ($5), I'd wholeheartedly recommend Quarrel.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Killing Two Birds with One Stone, Four Magic Stars, a Fire Gem, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Remember that console rundown I promised last time? It might actually happen soon! Or not! All I can really say is that when Steam sales happen, I tend to buy things. I'm human, you know. As part of my spoils, I ended up buying a couple of games that I've had my eye on for quite some time, but couldn't be bothered to get because they weren't on sale before. After a while, you'd think I'd spring for a banner for the top of this blog that says "cheapest reviewer on earth", but then again, I'd have to shop around first.

The first of these two games was Bejeweled 3. Yes, that Bejeweled. (And I suppose by extension, yes, that 3.) I probably don't need to go over the rules of how to play match-3 games, so I'll cut to the chase and say it's lacking something. You've got Classic mode, where you try to keep making matches until you can't make anymore (which is to say, let a random number generator decide when you stop playing), a Zen mode wherein one can play non-stop while being awkwardly pelted with subliminal messages and mind-altering sound waves, and about twenty different variations on the speed mode. The quest mode houses a number of these, and I've got to say, it's a really disappointing smattering of minigames. It's got only 40 levels to play through, compared to the 100 or so back in the days of Bejeweled Twist. Within about four hours of all playtime, I had already unlocked every mode available in the game, beaten the quest, and received half of the achievements, most of which simply stack on one another (clear 500 whatnots, clear 1000 of the same whatnots, etc.). All in all, it's a disappointing showing.

I do have to give thumbs up to the at least partially-entertaining Poker and Diamond Mine modes. The latter, shown here, is one of those speed levels where you have to clear gems adjacent to dirt to dig through them to go deeper. The Poker mode has you making five-gem "hands", by clearing gems in a certain order to put them on your cards. Both take a bit of strategy to play well, but they also make you realize how much the random number generator hates you. In every game mode (except for Classic), gems fall onto the board such that there's always at least one possible move. Sometimes, that's nowhere near where you want to go. Sometimes, it sets up a never-ending combo that keeps clearing over and over again. No joke, in the game pictured above, I nearly lost on the very first round because three gems of the same color kept falling into place on the right edge of the board, over and over again, while I was left with no move elsewhere and couldn't advance the game (what a time for crummy behavior, right when the blogger is writing about it!). It's instances like this that make the random number generator that chooses the gems for you seem really poorly-designed.

With very little added on to previous titles, and many things feeling broken, I just can't positively recommend Bejeweled 3. Then again, it's also somewhat unfair comparing it to semi-related titles like Twist, where the mechanics worked differently in so many ways. Then again, you're probably playing manly games like Skyrim instead of this, so what do you care anyway.

If you're still with me for some reason, the second game I wanted to share with you is Clickr. Rather than being a match-3 game, Clickr is best described as a match-4-plus-others game, if that makes any sense. You're given a grid with a colored squares, mostly red, blue, and green, plus stars which are wild and stones which are domestica blockers. Clicking any colored square will remove it from the grid, and gravity will drop the pieces above it down. When you create a 2x2 square of any piece, you can click it to remove it from the board, along with similarly-colored pieces of the same color.

Too complex? Try this: Just click until things happen. Unfortunately, for a game that finally takes a novel approach to matching and clearing tiles, the rewards for good play don't seem balanced enough. Clearing consecutive combos without stumbling seems to give bonuses on a curve so flat you'd be better off just playing clicking furiously rather than strategizing. Note that I said "furiously" rather than "randomly", because the game is still complex enough that it requires some thought, but too much and the game just bogs down.

Now that I've gotten my biggest complaint about Clickr out of the way up front, what of the rest of the game then? There are four modes to choose from, two puzzley clear-the-items-to-meet-a-certain-requirement modes, plus two clear-things-to-attack-your-opponent modes. (Actually, I guess there are five modes if you count the multiplayer mode, but I haven't tried that yet.) These modes all seem to be connected through a currency system that seems to be just as unforgiving as the combo system for good play. In playing the game, you can earn a handful (maybe five or so) of "cubes", but you get 100 every time you fulfill an in-game achievement, most of which are just things that you do while naturally playing, or worse, spending those same cubes to unlock new modes.

Despite a similar brokenness to the mechanics of Bejeweled 3, Clickr still seems to have some good entertainment value to it, even if only because of the chipper graphics and sound effects (think Yosumin, if you can remember that far back). Don't quote me on this, but I'd guess that I'll probably play more Clickr than Bejeweled 3 from this point in, though they'll both have to be wedged between the many awesome console games I'll be reviewing! Or not!