Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
I�m also in love with videogames, ever since they started to become a more �artistic� medium. I have little doubt that they are a new and exciting form of art, and will eventually replace cinema as an audiovisual medium for the masses. Games are still young and immature, but they are also bursting with creativity and new ideas, which makes them much more exciting than other mediums.
Silent Hill: Origins (2007)
"Was it all just a dream?"
"Was it all just a dream?" Maybe "Silent Hill" was just that: a dream... a dream surrounded by the misty haze of a medium far too young and shallow to understand the true value behind Toyama's masterpiece. Only by acknowledging this fact can one understand the often convoluted story behind the series. Had Konami Japan understood the (artistic and commercial) value of the series, I doubt they would have been so eager in wasting the series potential with such a lenient production policy. So, what is the story behind Silent Hill? First, a revolutionary game, that is the epitome of psychological horror (SH1); then a game that builds on that basis and adds a twisted storyline and aesthethic that in my opinion are worthy of a David Lynch movie (SH2); an uninspired sequel that follows the event of the first chapter, but that still manages to retain the same level of dramatic efficiency and production quality of its predecessors (SH3); and finally, a deviation of the series, that not only was unable to take the series forward, as it also failed in replicating some of the more important standards fans came to expect (SH4).
Alas, a prequel is made... by an outsider, American studio: Climax. Let me start by saying that I wouldn't like to be in their shoes, having to uphold to so much, and with so little experience to do so. Just think about it: in case they didn't stick to canon, they would be criticized for not maintaining the series core values, and if they opted for a strict following of the previous games, they would be criticized for not adding any value to the franchise. No win situation. Climax chose the second road, and "Silent Hill 0rigins" ends up looking like what you've come to expect of "Silent Hill": the same foggy town, with its empty streets, hospital, motel, and creepy monsters wandering about, the same camera angles coupled with a noise filter, the same eerie soundtrack. But, sadly, as you explore the dreamy landscape, you'll notice the subtle differences, and you'll realize they were as important as everything else in creating the horror masterpiece devised by Keiichiro Toyama. Not that Climax doesn't try hard to embody everything that is "Silent Hill", they do, but the fact remains that a copycat is only as good as his ability to perceive what made the original work of art grand... and Climax doesn't cut it.
"God is in the details." Small details, the type of which you'd thought wouldn't matter, but do. A simple example: a crucial aspect in any horror game is the surprise factor, the ability to catch the player off-guard (not necessarily to make him jump off his seat). In the first chapters of the franchise, there were a lot of unique scenes where the designers changed the field of play, messing with your head's preconceptions. For instance: the brilliant cat-scene in "Silent Hill", where you could hear a noise coming from a locker, and when you opened it, a cat sprung out, only to be killed by a demon-kid (or whatever you wanna call those things); later, when you entered the otherworld, the scene would repeat, a noise coming from the locker, but only this time, when you got the nerve to open it, the entrains of the cat where laying there. These small episodes were crucial in placing the player in an uncomfortable place, where every move ended with unpredictable results. In "0rigins", there isn't anything like that, everything moves along smoothly and predictably.
The "Silent Hill" universe always inhabited the realm of the surreal, where ambiguity and mystery went hand in hand. "0rigins", on the other hand, starts off with the worst of premises: to explain the events behind the first game. Now, you might not have noticed, but "explain" doesn't really mix with "surreal", "ambiguous" or "mysterious". Besides that, "Silent Hill 3" had already "explained" the first "Silent Hill" for the average player, so why try and explain more? No good could ever come from that mindset. The result is sad, at best: scenes pan out in predictable ways, with none of the edginess, creepiness or surrealism you'd expect; dialogs are poorly written and straightforward. Everything is just so linear, shallow and... well, I'm gonna say it: "American", that it manages to destroy any sense of strangeness that was still left in that world. Adding to that, all of the "explanations" in the game are irrelevant, serving only as canon fodder for the overly zealous fan to devour.
On a design note, there are some good aspects to Climax's venture: A higher focus on puzzles and exploration, a better use of sound and especially, of Akira Yamaoka's brilliant scores, and a battle system that is, for the most part, able to walk the thin line between responsiveness and clunkiness, i.e. not responsive enough to allow the player to feel either overly confident about killing monsters, and not frustrating to the point of making him throw his console out the window.
The first two "Silent Hills" were some of the best games ever designed, and that is an admittedly hard lineage to uphold, and as expected, "0rigins" utterly fails in doing so. Yet, it does manage to copy most of the formula of the series, making it a very pleasing game for the hardcore fans, as long as they don't expect to find herein the finer subtleties that made "Silent Hill" a grand masterpiece. "0rigins" is what it is: a mimic of a great work of art, that is as shallow and linear as the original was subtle and unique. The hard truth is that "Silent Hill" is growing stale and old, and the time will come when one must start wondering if we'll ever see such joyous days as the ones in 1999, when "Silent Hill" first appeared... here's hoping that it wasn't all just a dream.
Metal Gear Arcade
SEGA is probably one of the best and most influential software designer companies. However, its genesis lies in arcade-style video-games, and because of that, it's a company that never made a successful transition into modern day video-games; yet nobody can say they didn't try. When Sega was supporting the Dreamcast (which is probably the most underrated console ever), it tried to develop and publish modern games like "Headhunter" (developed by Amuze), but failed in the end to convince the blind Sony fans.
Much has been said about "Headhunter" being a copy of the famous "Metal Gear Solid"; though the comparison is inevitable, due to the Hollywood-like plot and stealth mechanics of both games, "Headhunter" is a sufficiently different game to be held on his own merits. Actually, if there is a game that resembles "Headhunter" is "Syphon Filter", and not "Metal Gear Solid". Why? Because "Metal Gear" has always been a more cerebral game, where every step requires careful consideration. Now, "Headhunter" is more of a shooter with stealth elements, than an actual stealth game, which, when you think about it makes perfect sense, considering Sega's roots; it's like an arcade take on "Metal Gear".
Controls are simple and clean, allowing the player to easily choose between silently killing each of his enemies one by one without alerting them, or to simply blast his way through a level. Everything works pretty well, except for the stealth kill that is pulled off by pressing the shoot button which means shooting a stray bullet instead of choking your adversary. Apart from that, the game handles action pretty well, with a straightforward level design keeping things direct. To avoid monotony, there are a few action-adventure elements, like "Resident Evil" style puzzles, and even a bike riding mini-game, that allows the player to travel to different missions.
"Headhunter's" plot, while not exactly breaking the mold, leaves little to desire. In the near future, American society is overwhelmed with crime and corruption (which is kind of like the present); a business man named Christopher Stern designs a solution: create a network of headhunters that track down and kill wanted criminals, offering bounties for their organs. You play as Jack Wade, Stern's protégé, who is the number one headhunter that for some unknown reason becomes amnesiac after the death of his protector. He then embarks, with the help of Stern's sexy daughter, on a journey to unveil a plot to take over the world (how original), which unfortunately, means you'll predict most of the twists, way before they happen. There are two reasons that make the somewhat silly script stick. First, voice acting: the actors that play the parts are right on, even if Jack Wade sounds too much like a Clint Eastwood rip-off, which adds a much needed degree of credibility to the fairly obtuse narrative. And two, the tone: instead of going for the ol' classic Hollywood realism that plagues so many video-games, "Headhunter" doesn't take itself too seriously, adding intelligent humor whenever possible. Moreover, the script is filled with satire and irony, ending up creating this aura of criticism to certain aspects of USA's politics and its surrounding media circus. It's not by any means a shallow plot, and the fact that it is reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven's classic movies, like "Robocop" and "Starship Troopers" only helps.
The surrounding package is not very exciting: there's little if any interesting work on the art department (everything looks realistic and "normal"), and sound design is okay; on the upside, there are some james bondesque orchestrations that are really catchy. It's not a remarkable game in any way, but it manages to achieve what can be expected of a sega classic: well executed straightforward entertainment.
A Noir Epic
Sometimes you have to wonder: why a sequel? "Max Payne" was, in the limited realm of video game art, probably one of the best works ever to be released; so, why a sequel? Was there anything left to be said? About Max, I mean? His love was dead, his past no longer a mystery and his desire for vengeance was fulfilled. So I have to admit, there seemed to be no reason to delve into Max Payne's sad, morbid and twisted mind again or was there? "The past is a gaping hole. You try to run from it, but the more you run, the deeper it grows behind you, its edges yawning at your heels. Your only chance is to turn around and face it. But it's like looking down into the grave of your love, or kissing the mouth of a gun, a bullet trembling in its dark nest, ready to blow your head off."
"Max Payne 2" might seem like an attempt to cash in from the original's success: it took less than two years to design, graphically it's very similar, it starts with exactly the same tone and plot devices as its predecessor, the plot opens holes in the first one's narrative, that quite frankly, just weren't there and a certain character is mysteriously revived during the first screens of the game. So, at a glance, "Max Payne 2" could seem like an afterthought of the original. Appearances are misleading
The first thing that pops up is that Max Payne doesn't look like Max Payne: his character model is different. At first, this seems strange, this eerie, awkward transition from a Hawaiian shirt youngster with quirky smile and feel free attitude, to this middle-aged man with disillusioned, depressed, deep caved eyes that look as they've seen all the horrors the world has to offer. But if you ponder, you will understand that this is the way Max Payne was meant to look like: a torn, spiritually crippled "noir" detective. This IS Max Payne. The change goes as far as revamping all the character models from the first game (in vignettes and in game-models), making them all feel more in key with the tone and style of the game. Apparently, during the first game, the budget didn't allow the designers to hire real actors for use in character models (only voice acting), and so they had to base characters on members of the creative team. Voices on the other hand, still sound the same, which is good, because they were already well acted in the first game.
The subtle change of actors seems essential in the grand scheme of things behind "Max Payne 2", as the plot tries to go even deeper in terms of exploring its characters' beliefs, motivations and above all, their feelings. This is a departure from the first game, since its story delved more on the actions and consequences of Payne's obsessive vendetta, than on his actual inner demons. Now, that's upside down, and the objective is focusing on Payne's love, regret, and hope of atonement for his dark past. The story (once again written by Sami Järvi) runs deeper in its meanings and concoctions, its drama is truly heartfelt (to the point of a good drama film), even if in actual plot terms, nothing very important really happens during the game. Add a remixed version of the first game's poignant soundtrack, some beautifully crafted comic-book style vignettes, the best dialog you've ever seen in a video game, and you have a narrative that will chill your spine, challenge your brain and make your soul cry. That's how good "Max Payne 2" story is.
Though the actual game-play is more or less the same as in the first game, it was subtly improved, with a small number of details that empower the already brilliant shooting mechanics. Firstly, the game is smaller, which means it's juicier and more cohesive, leaving anything that could be defined as "filler" out. Levels are better designed this time around, and resonate with character's feelings and states of mind, making them not only important in terms of game-play, but also in terms of setting up the ambiance of the story. This was also true for the first game, but it's better explored this time around; some levels are downright masterpieces of level and art design. Even the apparently unimportant TV shows (the parody to Shakespeare's comedy "Much ado about nothing" named "Lords and Ladies", the David Lynch homage "Address Unknown" and the spoof of blaxpoitation masterpiece "Shaft" - "Dick Justice") that can be viewed in the scenarios' television sets are incredibly well written and add layers of interpretation to characters and situations. In strict terms of game-play, besides upholding the standard of the first game's pacing, the designers use pre-scripted events and scenarios that change the flow of the game: like a level in which you play with someone else other than Max Payne that has to protect him, or a boss fight in where you actually have to think on how to kill your adversary. These small additions might seem irrelevant, but they make "Max Payne 2" remain as interesting in terms of game-play as its predecessor.
As expected not everything is perfect. As mentioned before, the actual plot doesn't really go anywhere, since the ending of "Max Payne" left no avenues for a sequel. The visual aspect of the game doesn't show much improving, and would've benefited from the use of better lighting technology, that might've made the in-game graphics resemble the expected "chiaroscuro" aesthetic. Minor flaws apart, the game is simply astonishing and improves on every small aspect of its prequel, even if it feels much more of an update on the original than an actual sequel. "Max Payne 2" is the coming of age of a concept, the culmination of its authors' artistry in story-telling, game and audiovisual design. If "Max Payne" was Art, then "Max Payne 2" is fine Art.
Max Payne (2001)
A Noir Love Letter
Like in many other forms of art, video game creators look up to other mediums as a means of finding inspiration. Classical themes and codes are often replicated in video-games, whether in terms of story, art or cut-scene direction, or even game-play. Not always have these transitions been successful, but sometimes, they work, they really, really work; "Max Payne" is one of those cases. Now, "Max Payne" is not an adaptation "per se", but it's a clever homage to a number of art forms, and especially to a genre: the Noir. "Max Payne" can be described as an interactive cinematic action noir graphic novel. Sounds complicated, right? Let me Explain.
From the get-go any player will understand that "Max Payne" isn't an ordinary game: the initial cut-scene renders a dark NY, stricken with the storm of the century, wind and snow ablaze; behind a cacophony of helicopters, ambulances and police-sirens, a low-toned, hoarse voice slowly mutters the words: "They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark on everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger, and it was over." Meet "Max Payne", a worn-out, gloomy police-officer whose wife and daughter were murdered by a group of over-drugged junkies; his purpose in life? To kill everyone connected to that murder. Like any hard boiled novel cop, he is a man stricken with guilt and regret, his past a mystery, and his objectives are not pure. Max's journey will unveil a corrupt society, where crime and power go hand in hand, where love and hate go side by side and where vengeance and justice are two faces of the same coin. As he himself puts it "I had taken on the role of the mythic detective: Bogart as Marlowe, or as Sam Spade going after the Maltese Falcon. To unravel all the mysteries, following a path of clues to that final revelation, even if it would take me down to the cold, cavernous depths of a grave." The plot develops through a series of live-action stills, with hand drawn coloring and drawings on top to resemble graphic novel vignettes. Speech bubbles show the dialogs, while at the same time voice actors read them, with that over the top, fatalist tone that so well complements noir stories. These dialogs are extremely well written, filled with metaphors, hyperboles, allegories and a cynical overtone that engulfs nearly all sentences... even that creepy post-modern humor makes an appearance. The moody and sad undertone of the soundtrack is the icing of the cake: the cold sound of a bleeding cello gives a whole new level to Max's emotional pain. Everything in "Max Payne" feels like a tribute to "Noir" films and novels, a tribute to Eisner, Miller, Wilder and Ellroy; its dark aesthetic and literary influences leave no doubt: "Max Payne" is the first interactive Film-Noir.
But, a good narrative isn't enough to make a good game, game-play is also a factor, and even there "Max Payne" is brilliant. The action bulk of the game is perceived in the 3rd person shooter angle, with a "bullet-time" mechanic (Matrix style) allowing the player to slow down time, dodging incoming bullets while aiming at the opponents' heads to blast them to kingdom come. Even from a technical point of view this was revolutionary at the time, for the bullets' trajectories were calculated in real time, with the shooter's momentum interfering on the path they took. But the level-design is what truly made this shine; levels were correctly paced, with action sequences followed by adventure and plot elements in the right proportion, thus avoiding the shooting-overload-sickness most action games go for. Max Payne's formula is so downright perfect, that no game to this day has nailed the "bullet-time" style game-play on the same level (except its sequel); "Enter the Matrix" was shallow at best, and the recent "Stranglehold" is absent of any thought level design choices, making it the shooter equivalent of a "hack and slash".
Games don't get any better than "Max Payne", its smart narrative, audacious aesthetic and its perfect game-play all come together in one solid game. Its so damn good, I would never have imagined there would ever be a sequel, let alone, one that actually improves on its predecessor... but that is a tale for another time. "Max Payne" is a beautifully told noir novel that could have been written in any other medium, and still be brilliant; a novel that demands the rightful statute of Art.
Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003)
A Question of Evolution
Hard core gamers are hard to please when it comes to sequels. They tend to be overzealous in terms of design choices, expecting new games in a franchise to follow the basis laid down by its predecessors. When games try and break the mold, forums get packed with angry hard-cores that slam mouth every new design choice, with little, if any, reason for their complaints (think FFXII or Oblivion). Curiously enough, these are the same that spend most of their time ranting about EA's repetitive publishing politics. The result of this conservatism is well known, franchises tend to follow a pretty strict formula: avoid innovation. Look around, how many game series keep reinventing themselves, title after title? Surely not "Final Fantasy", "Resident Evil", "Tomb Raider", "Metroid Prime", "Halo", and so on; though these are hugely successful games, they tend to be filled with uninspired concepts. That is why whenever a sequel tends to push the envelope, it deserves praise for its courage and creativity. And if the game is better, then great if it's not, at least something different was tried. "Deus Ex: Invisible War" is such a game: 3 years after the success of the first "Deus Ex", Warren Spector created a new game that, while maintaining the spirit of its predecessor, didn't stick with its foundations. Needless to say, he got little praise from his undying fans.
The first thing that undermines the first game's concept is the game genre. Though "Deus Ex" used the first person perspective, at its core, was a pure RPG. Now, "Invisible War" embraces the FPS mechanics, even if it still has RPG elements beneath it all. Action requires dodging and aiming, and accuracy cannot be evolved; in fact, the only thing that can be evolved in the game, are the weapons and biomods (in similar fashion to "Deus Ex"). Still on the RPG side of the game, there are still side-quests to be performed, people to talk to, and an engrossing storyline to follow through. Still, it is important to ask: why the change of genre? Personally, I think Warren Spector understood that classical RPG's where losing appeal, and more action oriented games where on the rise. More so, in the three years gap between these games, game design had been somewhat streamlined to the needs of the ever crescent casual players. And though this is arguable, I believe it was the right choice; "Invisible War" feels modern, user friendly, dynamic, fun and easy to play, even though it is less challenging and less engrossing than its RPG predecessor.
Thanks to smaller, more cohesive levels, level design also comes out as more linear and intuitive (thank God); unfortunately, this also means the game's environments are more claustrophobic, which stops the world from feeling alive and organic. Smaller levels also allow players to easily choose a path that is more suitable to their gaming style, avoiding the needless wandering that occurred in the first "Deus Ex", whenever the player had to search for a specific venting crawl or door access. All of these elements contribute to the more action oriented nature of the game, and are well intertwined with the FPS mechanics of the game.
On the narrative side, the second "Deus Ex" also feels like a mixed bag. Dialogs are much more consistent in terms of writing quality, giving a more mature tone to the plot and its thought-provoking philosophical ramblings. However, this just isn't enough to save the story that, besides remaining overly ambitious and somewhat ridiculous, is filled with plot wholes and disastrous, monotonic voice-acting. Choices in terms of narrative have again been neglected, and even though this time around there are a few more possibilities in terms of story, it is difficult to find them encouraging, since their consequences are not, in any way, experienced by the player. You could say that you can "imagine" the consequences, but even that pleasure is denied by the game, since characters and situations are so boring and one-sided that your brain will feel too numb and sleepy to give a damn about consequences. This is even truer, since the game is slightly more polarized in terms of "right" and "wrong", making it less morally provoking than its prequel.
The art behind the game is basically identical to its forefather, featuring dark moody backgrounds and colors, now adorned with some nice dynamic lighting effects that add a welcome contrast to the sets. "Blade Runner-like" synthesizer based music also makes a comeback, providing the appropriate sci-fi ambiance to the game. It is a shame that so little progress was made in this area, but even so, the game manages to be above average in this regard.
But it all comes down to: is it better than "Deus Ex"? The answer is no. It isn't better, but it can hardly be described as worse. It's like a different approach to the same motif. Even so, I remain true to my convictions: Warren Spector tried to create a new formula, instead of developing a cash-making, easy-to-produce sequel; in some aspects he succeeded, in others he did not. Like the first "Deus Ex", "Invisible War" is as promising as it is disappointing, a realm of possibilities that are never fully developed and that would only be fully fledged in future games
But, if you think about it, that's what sets Warren Spector's games apart from the rest: they are a visionary testament of what is to come.
Deus Ex (2000)
A Question of Choices
Warren Spector. Though many may not immediately recognize the name, Warren Spector is one of the most important game directors in the industry. His name has become a synonym of openness and liberty when it comes to game-play and narrative elements. When games were still trying to grasp linear narratives and straight-forward game-play design, Warren Spector was already going one step ahead and trying non-linearity. And though he hasn't been very active in the past years, the influence of his games can still be felt as of today, whether in the decision making of "Bioshock" ("to harvest or not to harvest that is the question") or the variety of action approaches games like "Crysis" permit.
The philosophy behind "Deus Ex", as in all Warren Spector games is: "Freedom of Choice". Whether one fancies stealth, vent-crawling or mindless shooting, the game allows any tactic of choice. Of course, more often than not, one approach might be harder to pull off than others, and in some cases, choosing one or the other bears little change in the end result. However, such boldness in game design is commendable, as every level can be navigated in many, many different ways.
Level design is standard fare for a 1999 game, with little information on how to navigate a level, apart from a confusing map and a number of objectives. Especially considering the open-choice structure of the game (which adds to the complexity of the maps), there really aren't enough hints to guide the player. Adding to that, scenarios aren't intuitive enough: cities either have huge expansive environments or borderline claustrophobic ones; different floors of the same building have different room configurations; structures have locked doors all around, with open entrances and stairs popping-up where you'd least expect; and equipment lies almost everywhere, from bathrooms to venting ducks. Most times, map design just looks plain random. It's not bad, but it certainly isn't "Half-life" or "Quake 2". And though "Deus Ex" might seem like a normal day FPS on the surface, the only thing it borrows from the genre is the perspective. In its core, "Deus Ex" is a run of the mill western-RPG: players' reflexes and dexterity with a mouse are seldom needed, because what dictates a hit or miss with a gun is the experience points each player has invested in pistol training. The use of weapons, special powers and items are all dictated by choices he makes.
On top of everything, as usual in an RPG, there is a plot to wrap everything up. In the future depicted by "Deus Ex", the whole world is governed by a single entity: the UN. The main character is JC Denton, a UN special ops soldier with a body full of cybernetic upgrades. He's the lead weapon against a group of anarchist terrorists that are trying to overthrow the UN regime. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and a number of plot twists will repeatedly shatter players' beliefs. There are many conspiracies to be unraveled, but unfortunately, as is common in ambitious game-plots, it promises more than it can deliver, with later revelations appearing out of place and being too reminiscent of certain books not to call them "clichés".
Most dialogs are bland, but once in a while, out of the blue, some well written political and philosophical discussions emerge; too bad they don't last longer. Characters are usually linear and predictable; Denton, however, seems schizophrenic, jumping from capitalist to anarchist (and vice-versa) faster than a blink of an eye. Unlike the action, there are few choices to make when it comes to narrative; dialog trees have mostly informative purposes and are of little consequence, which ends up distancing the player from the otherwise engrossing narrative. The ending is the exception, and one of the highlights of the game, proposing a tough choice to the player: decide the fate of the world. And believe it or not, there's no easy choice... and no happy ending. Unlike Bioware's "good vs. evil" decisions, each of the choices in "Deus Ex" is completely amoral and has little to do with right and wrong. If the story is in fact a mirror of its creator's soul, then Warren Spector is definitely a cynic, thinking little of Man or its Civilization.
Like the plot, art design and soundtrack provide a moody, gritty and dark ambiance, mixing soft techno-like music with poorly lighted environments, adding a distinct flavor to this pessimistic view of the future. It provides a similar background to that of movie aesthetics like "The Matrix" or even "Blade Runner", it's just a shame the plot isn't nearly as well conceived as in those movies.
All in all, "Deus Ex" is a wonderful game. Although ahead of its time, it lacks a certain layer of polish in nearly all of its aspects. Gameplay could have used tweaking, and better level design would have taken the game into a whole new league. Nevertheless, it is easy to apologize most of its flaws considering its revolutionary nature, and the impact it continues to have on gaming today.
A symphony to remember
Originality is sparse in game concepts. Most follow standard formulas and are easily categorized in terms of plot and game-play. "Eternal Sonata" is one of those rare games that risk everything with an original concept. Alas, like many others, "Eternal Sonata" is in many ways refreshing, but is also filled with a huge array of worn out clichés, that just like bad music, never allow the game to reach its "crescendo".
Frederic Chopin is dying. While he lies on his deathbed, he starts to dream of a magical world where every note, song and symphony he ever wrote come to life in the form of characters and locations. The game can be depicted as his inner journey throughout this dream, where a dense plot lies, filled with the classic themes of love, betrayal and death. Since Chopin was a real life character, realism would have been the way to go in terms of art design. But strangely, the only speck of reality in this game lies in slide-shows that recount Chopin's Biography, through captioned live-action pictures accompanied by the sound of Chopin's greatest music.
But apart from those memorable sequences, the aesthetic of the game is very anime-like actually, it's pure anime. Cutscenes have dialog, action, comedy and directing that follow anime's principles. And they're actually pretty good, filled with cinematic camera angles and great use of soundtrack. Characters are young, cute, act like silly "j-pop" kids, and have the unusual tendency to start digressing about the meaning of life and death. That might've been a downside, but the truth is that the dialogs in these philosophical sequences are sharply written, in the tradition of animes like "Evangelion" or "Ghost in the Shell". However, like the "animes" it resembles, most of the hidden meanings of the narrative only become clear after the game-over screen, and even then, they are never fully explained. Unveiling the hidden meanings of the plot requires some thought, since many actions and dialogs are of an allegorical or metaphorical nature, bursting with spiritual meaning. Art usually lends itself to be open for interpretation, and though games rarely do so, "Eternal Sonata" clearly wants to stand out, and thus become like one of Chopin's melodies: enigmatic and beautiful.
And beautiful is certainly the right word to describe the visuals of "Eternal Sonata". Lush environments, filled with vibrant colors and lights, merge to form crisp and astonishing images. The buildings' architecture, characters' wardrobe and accessories are all very detailed and show immense creativity, even by "japanimation" standards. There's a huge amount of work in the art design department, and even the best "Final Fantasies" may look a bit shady when compared to this game.
"Tri-Crescendo" has been the sound designer of "Tri-Ace" ("Star Ocean" and "Tales" series), and was behind the "Baten Kaitos" games and it shows. Soundtrack (among other things) will feel familiar to those who played any of these games, but, since the subject matter is Chopin, Composer Motoi Sakuraba's music is heavily influenced by his work, which results in one of his best soundtracks so far.
Where "Eternal Sonata" does hit a bad note is in game-play elements. Hiroya Hatsushiba's creativity appears to have run out after designing the plot and art aspects, something that curiously didn't happen in his previous works ("Baten Kaitos"and "Baten Kaitos II"). The actual game inside "Eternal Sonata" is extremely formulaic, as if it was an afterthought in the creative process. Probably, the designers thought that there was enough innovation in other aspects to risk breaking any more conventions in game-play. And, looking at the rant "Final Fantasy XII" got for trying to break the mold, maybe they weren't so far off. Action is therefore, business as usual, with towns and dungeon-like areas to explore in the same tiring way as every other J-RPG (talk to very villager, get items in small wooden boxes), and combat is turn-based (with one or two gimmicks that try to cover it up). Battles are somewhat fun (for the first hours anyway) and relatively easy, which is a plus, since that means you don't have to tire yourself too much with the repetition of the attack-attack-heal strategy, which is basically everything you can actually do during combat. On the other hand, dungeons are too elaborate for a game with no map whatsoever, which means consistently exploring every nut and crack of the scenarios, which also means more dull and insipid combat.
If it wasn't for the blandness of the game-play aspects of the game, "Eternal Sonata" would probably be one of the greatest RPG's ever made, period. But as it stands, it manages only to achieve one of its goals: create an "artsy" audio-visual interpretation of Chopin's works. The game sees itself as fine art, and fine art it is
it's just not interactive fine art.
The Darkness (2007)
The first thing one notices when playing "The Darkness" is the incredibly stylized visual aspect of the game. It seems fair to assume that a game called "The Darkness" would be dark but the game isn't just dark, it's pure darkness. It starts of in New York City and it's a shock to see every street, corner and alley so gloomy and absent of light, with only a few lamps bursting small, but bright, rays of light. But even those are not warm pleasant lights; they're cold, dry white lights that contrast perfectly with the blackness that surrounds them. The result is similar to the "chiaroscuro"style photography that will reminisce with anyone who has ever seen a "Film-Noir" or German expressionist film like "Nosferatu". Though it's a common technique in cinema, this is the first game that actually was able to emulate it on a game (and so many have tried), and for that fact it must be commended. The way the lighting shapes objects and scenarios is superb, thanks to the quality of the volumetric lighting engine and the sheer detail of the sets. Whether it's the New York subways, with its grayish and slab tones, or the hellish land of the Darkness, engulfed in its dead brown and fiery red, every environment of the game feels unique and organic, pulsating with life and death.
The dark visuals fit perfectly as the counterpart to a story of corruption that transpires in the soul of one man: Jackie Estacado. Jackie is a "wise guy" from a crime family ruled by his Uncle Paulie, and on his 21st birthday, he's possessed by a demon-like being called "The Darkness". Coincidentally, on the same day, his uncle decides to have Jackie killed. "The Darkness" will agree to save Jackie by giving him power, but in return, will demand a significant price to pay. The story is beautifully crafted, filled with fatalism and dread; in a nutshell: it's "The Godfather" meets "Faust". Not a bad combination, is it? And though it's based on a comic book, don't expect a cookie-cutter plot; it's not revolutionary, but it's engaging and deep. Narrative develops through dialogs and cut-scenes where the player has control of the character ("a la" Half-Life 2); and this is where "The Darkness" shines really brightly, with character animations bordering life-like, thanks to one of the best motion capturing ever seen in games. Add great voice-acting, and the result is a series of emotionally powerful sequences that actually resonate with the player, and thus give a whole new level of dramatic impact to the plot.
As a FPS, "The Darkness" fares well: it's not groundbreaking, it's not perfect, but it is enjoyable. The main character can use a lot of guns, which feel extremely powerful, thanks to the care given to model and sound design. But apart from the ability to use of some cool finishing moves, gun use feels a bit formulaic and shallow. Adding spice into the mix, are the "darkness" powers that allow the disposal of enemies in a number of "unpleasant" ways. Stick a huge tentacle through your enemies' bowels? Check. Summon a kamikaze imp to blow everything to smithereens? Check. Darkness powers are fun, and do a nice job of adding a touch of dark-humor to the otherwise serious tale. The downfall is that most powers don't seem well implemented, and more than once in a while, their effect will be unpredictable, either because the controls aren't responsive enough, or because the AI just doesn't cut it.
Level Design is OK. Action sequences are balanced and straight-forward, allowing the game to flow smoothly. But, "The Darkness", like the companies' predecessor ("Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay") also has a few RPG/adventure elements that add variety: speaking to characters, finding collectible items, and performing small quests are just a few of the possibilities. The problem here is that, unlike "Riddick", levels are enormous in size, and usually, have little going on in most of their areas. This means, the aforementioned elements become long and somewhat boring fetch games filled with backtracking . So unlike "Riddick", instead of helping the game, these elements end up hurting it.
Like its "Chiaroscuro", "The Darkness" is game of contrast; on one hand, there's a powerful and moving story, beautifully told through the sights and sounds of the game, and on the other, an uninspired game, that doesn't show the same amount of care and production value as the rest of the package. All in all, it's a great game for those who don't mind suffering some uninspired shooting to appreciate some great artistic design and a cinematic narrative. So if you don't belong in this group, then forget about "The Darkness", but if you do
Devil May Cry 4 (2008)
Sequels Make You Cry
"Capcom" is one of the most preeminent companies in the industry; it's also one of the most innovative, especially considering the last few years. However, that doesn't mean they don't milk their cows quite the opposite, they have one of the more sequel driven publishing strategies. From a financial point of view, their tactic is sound: use "R&D-like" small production units to create new concepts, and then explore the established franchises until they stop selling. Yet, from an artistic point of view, it's an odd sight to see the same company name behind the brilliant "Devil May Cry", "Killer7" and "Ôkami", and the not so interesting "Megamans", "Street Fighters", "Resident Evils" and "Onimushas".
But, the past is past, a new generation of platforms has arrived, and it remains to be seen if the financially risky creative departments will have a chance to produce new titles, considering the high production values behind 360 and ps3 games. So, after the original and interesting "Dead Rising", it is with little surprise that "Capcom" now launches a sequel: "Devil May Cry 4". "Devil May Cry" has been a series filled with its fair share of ups and downs. The first "Devil May Cry" was a pure masterpiece; the second was a step backwards and the third a step sideways. So, it's fair to say that the expectations weren't very high. The question with this fourth installment is simple: does "Capcom" pull a "Resident Evil 4" out of the hat, or simply one more "Code Veronica"? The answer is neither. Sadly, "Devil May Cry 4" doesn't reinvent the series, but fortunately it has enough punch to forget the series' uninspired past.
Looking at the game, it is nice to see that many of the original game's concepts were recaptured and finally improved on this sequel. Firstly, the neo-Gothic art style has returned in full force and went back to basics. Instead of opting for the grand-scale scenarios of "DMC2" and "DMC3", that mixed modern urban settings with the neo-Gothic architecture and some horror inspired scenarios (with mixed results), "DMC4" goes for a more classic approach, forgetting the modern settings and replacing them with nineteenth century architecture that blends much better with the neo-Gothic style. In the character department, there is also a return to the series roots, with more serious (but not exaggeratedly serious) designs replacing the often ridiculous monster design of the series. And thanks to more powerful hardware, everything looks even better, with crispy HD quality and great lighting effects that make everything shine; it's easily one of the most visually impressive games around, thanks in great part to its art design and technical execution.
The tone of the game as also taken a leap backwards to the first "DMC", forgetting the over the top humor of "Dante's Awakening", and going for a more B-movie feel: either stupidly serious or seriously humorous; it's still is charmingly funny and witty, without going to the point of being "too" ridiculous. This goes well with the plot, that though mind numbing, manages to keep some interest in its unfolding. This is, in no small part, thanks to the virtuous cut-scene directing from the hands of Yûji Shimomura ("Versus" director), who had already worked in "DMC3" and "Onimusha 3" with great results. His cut-scenes are among the best ever seen in a video game, and it is impossible not to notice that they are done with great cinematic flair and style, though without the limitations of a real camera.
But those are mere details, what really matters in a "DMC" is the action, the one where you can take part of. And it is there that "DMC4" doesn't do as well. On the good side of things, besides series' veteran Dante (that comes with all the moves from previous games), there is a new playable character named Nero, that actually plays differently. It's a not a difference you'll notice immediately mind you, but as the game moves on, it'll become all the more apparent: Nero's movements were thought from scratch and forget many of the unnecessary complications of Dante's moves (the numerous styles and weapon combinations). Nero has only one way of playing, and because of that, his game-play feels much more modern and intuitive. Yet, many of the classic moves still make an appearance, and the somewhat obtuse and dated control system hurts the game... a lot. The reason for this lies in the use of subjective directions to make certain movements; the problem with this is that "DMC4" is too frenetic and action-driven for the player to be constantly trying to find out which direction Dante or Nero are facing, and which enemy they are targeting, especially if you consider the elevated number of enemies in each arena and the awkward camera angles (that are as bad as the ones in the first game, which dates to 2001 ). So, while some progress was made in the game-play department, its quirks and old-school approach just don't cut it by today's standards, and are hardly deserving of a sequel.
"Devil May Cry 4" fails to be a true sequel to the first game in the series. It's better than its two predecessors, but not enough to make it a masterpiece. The reason for this probably lies in "Capcom's" management department, that chose Hideaki Itsuno ("DMC2" and "DMC3" director) for director; meanwhile Hideki Kamiya (director of the first "DMC", "Resident Evil 2", "Okami", "Viewtiful Joe") and Shinji Mikami (director of "Resident Evil", "Resident Evil 4", exec. producer of the first "DMC") are probably doing something new that will drive games in a anew direction. It's a shame that "Capcom" isn't always capable of reinventing its franchises, but one must understand that in order to innovate, they first must cash in on their series. Besides, how many masterpieces can gaming geniuses Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamyia create each season anyway? Not many, I'm afraid
Lost Odyssey (2007)
The (Real) Final Fantasy
Few "Final Fantasy" fans like the new course of the series, with Yasumi Matsuno's different approach in "FFXII" and the growing number of uninspired series' spin offs. Because of this, "FFXIII" is probably the least expected episode in the series in many years. So, when word got out, that after leaving Square, Hironobu Sakaguchi formed a new company named Mistwalker, expectations reached an all time high for the "Final Fantasy" fans. Due to the "Blue Dragon" flop, "Lost Odyssey" was released with little fanfare: reviewers everywhere dismissed the game as mild effort to repeat the JRPG formula once more, and the fan-base of the 360 wasn't mildly interested in a classical JRPG. So, the question that needs answering is: how does "Lost Odyssey" stack up when compared with the "Final fantasy" legacy?
"Lost Odyssey" is the tale of Kaim Argonar, an immortal that has lived for a thousand years. It is set in a high fantasy/sci-fi scenario, similar to that of "FFVIII", where a number of political conflicts have engaged the world in a series of wars. The reason why the world is at war is rather simple: there is a powerful, mad wizard that wants to take over the world with his magic, and uses these conflicts to gain power; alas, a big old cliché. Sakaguchi's script is really poor, with a plot so obvious and dull, it hurts: in the first few hours it will be plainly obvious who the bad guy is and what he's plotting, and what the good guys' role is. No plot twists, no grand finale, no hidden meanings... nothing. Yet, the ol' Sakaguchi charm still manages to creep up, with a cast of touching and funny characters giving the story a much needed interest. . Not all the cast is as charming as it should be and can seem mostly underdeveloped, especially Kaim, who is so "emo" it becomes annoying: all his dialogs can be resumed to a series of careless, dry one-liners. But that is where things get interesting
"Lost Odyssey" features a collaboration from Japanese writer Kiyoshi Shigematsu, named "1000 years of dreams", a collection of memories belonging to Kaim's thousand years of living. These memories were translated to screen only using text, a few abstract images and sound, and of course, Uematsu's soundtrack. The result is, by far, the best narrative "Lost Odyssey" has to offer. Here, Kaim is portrayed as a multifaceted character, with proper feelings and personality; his life-episodes are much more deep and emotionally provocative than anything Sakaguchi can come up with. They can be described as philosophical tales about war and peace, love and hate, life and death, but nothing I could write would transmit how powerful, well written they really are. After the first one, I was hooked to these pieces of literary magic, that managed to make me weep every time, due to the intensity of those vivid dramatic moments, made all the more touching thanks to Uematsu's music. It's so good, that if "Lost Odyssey" focused on these writings instead of the silly "Madman wants to take over the world" plot, it would probably have the best JRPG story ever.
The game-play, as would be expected from Sakaguchi, is the standard in classical turn-based RPG's, i.e. nothing new here. And if it does feel dated, one must admit that at least it's well executed: battles require timed inputs, that prevent the player from dozing off; grinding is not an issue, thanks to the use of an experience system that grants levels with great speed; and the tradition of obscure side-quests is gone, with most of the hidden secrets in the game only requiring a healthy amount of exploration and reasoning to uncover. So if you like to reminisce about classical "Final Fantasies", then the game-play will surely make you happy. Nobuo Uematsu's fully orchestrated score will also make you very happy, as it follows the spirit of the series, meaning its one hell of a soundtrack. Though it's nostalgic, it's a completely original score, which allowed Uematsu to go to new, unvisited places, instead of having to rearrange the same tiresome melodies.
On the technical side, the game has its ups and downs. The art-direction is good and translates well into the powerful Unreal Engine, producing beautiful sets and characters. It isn't, by any means, nothing that hasn't been done before: most of the aesthetic is reminiscent of past "Final Fantasies", and the usual Japanese silliness (like dresses that lack fabric in bosom and rear) is too present to make the world's environment feel believable. The fact that the game doesn't run very well, doesn't help: there are many loading-screens and stuttering-cut-scenes waiting players who want to get through to the end of the game. At least, the cut-scenes and FMV are the best I've ever seen, with fast cut editing, dynamic directing (finally a game that masters the use of low and high-angle shots) and use of simultaneous multiple POVs (giving a comic-book feel like that of Ang Lee's "Hulk"). Apart from the simplistic lighting, the visual direction by Roy Sato (animator of "The Flight of the Osiris") is entirely commendable.
So, is "Lost Odyssey" a worthy successor of the "Final Fantasy" legacy? The answer is
yes. Though "Lost Odyssey" has many flaws, it fares remarkably well in upholding the series' concepts and production values. Everything you'd expect from a "Final Fantasy" is present. Yet, "Final Fantasy" has always been a series that, in each episode, went further in the genre and "Lost Odyssey" feels exactly the opposite. At first, that might be a letdown, but after shedding a few tears from reading every "1000 Years of Memories", you'll understand what Sakaguchi is trying to say with his game: why go forward, when the dramatic potential of the genre is still underachieved? "Lost Odyssey" is his greatest masterpiece, a game so heartbreaking, profound and beautiful that it fully deserves the title of "Final Fantasy".