An Objective Review of Dragon’s Crown

I’ve been seeing a lot of controversy regarding the new Atlus/Vanillaware game, Dragon’s Crown.  Specifically, many people are unhappy with the review posted by notable gaming website Polygon which can be found here.  Personally, I found the review to be well-considered and fair, and it has not diminished my interest in the game.

However, we here at The Chaos Fold always seek to please you, dear reader.  So to make up for the perceived “bias” and lack of “objectivity” I have crafted the following, a completely objective review of Dragon’s Crown.

*ahem*

Dragon’s Crown is a piece of interactive software designed for the purposes of recreation and entertainment. It is available in two formats, one for the Sony PlayStation 3, and one for the Sony PlayStation Vita. It has been released in the Gregorian calendar year of 2013 AD/CE. Each version has slightly different controls, and while the PlayStation 3 version has higher resolution graphics and higher quality sound reproduction, the PlayStation Vita version can be played in a wide variety of locations and does not require the ownership of a “Television Set” peripheral.

Dragon’s Crown features combat between belligerents of varying shapes. These shapes are generally inspired by various western fantasy archetypes, and have a wide array of colors in them. Some of these archetypes are humanoid. Others are non-humanoid.

There are also animations, and visual effects generated by these characters. Sometimes this animation takes place during combat. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes this animation is triggered by player input, other times it is triggered by unseen scripting.

The game contains audio, some of which is represented in the form of sound effects, and some of which is musical in nature. There is also a good deal of text, which can be informative of gameplay systems or mechanics, or related to the game’s storyline.

The game has a storyline, with a beginning, middle, and end.

There is multiplayer, solo play, and solo play with AI-controlled allies. Allies, both AI-controlled and human-controlled attempt to be helpful. On occasion, they do not succeed.

The storyline is progressed by initiating combat with multiple enemies through a variety of environments, and succeeding in this task. There are various missions through which you can advance the primary storyline, and various other tangential missions that do not directly advance the primary storyline. Successfully completing missions will provide the player with rewards. Many missions culminate with combat against an enemy significantly larger and/or more powerful than previous enemies.

Players will use inputs on controllers to affect change within the game world.

Upon completion of the game, the game can be replayed.

Editorial note: The Chaos Fold’s review of Dragon’s Crown is based entirely on facts that literally anyone can acquire with or without playing the game.  No code was provided by Atlus or Vanillaware for this review and I am not being paid by anyone for this, or indeed for anything else.  If you require more detailed analyisis and critique of this game, we at The Chaos Fold urge you to seek out a professional video game reviewer whose opinions have historically aligned well with your own.  Note that any review obtained in this manner will not be objective, as media criticism is an inherently (and entirely) subjective.  Please see the companion piece, A User’s Guide to Media Reviews.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a Quasi-Review

Note: some spoilitos for all three Deus Ex games lie within.  You have been warned.

When Deus Ex was released I was thirteen years old.  Now, maybe that’s not an appropriate age to play Deus Ex, some may think.  I don’t know many early-teens who could appreciate the freedom and breadth of storytelling that game provided.  It was the first game to ever truly blow me away.  It was the game I couldn’t shut up about.  Long before the cake was ever a lie, I was spouting “I wanted orange!  It gave me Lemon-Lime!” at my console gamer friends, to their utter bewilderment.

Deus Ex hit with the force of a revelation, seemingly from nowhere.  It has parallels to System Shock and Thief, understandably, but the storyline, steeped in conspiratorial lore and existential questions about the true nature of humanity.  There’s an old internet saying that every time someone mentions Deus Ex in a forum thread, someone will reinstall it and play through again.  I’ve lost count of how many times I gazed through the nano-augmented eyes of J.C. Denton, cutting through the labyrinthine schemes of the Majestic 12, the Illuminati, FEMA, even sentient computers with their own conflicting goals.  I have never played the game the same way twice, and I doubt I ever could.

When I first heard that a newly-formed studio, Eidos Montreal was to take the reins and make a sequel to a game that borders on the sacrosanct in the pantheon of development, I scoffed.  We all remember what happened when Warren Spector left the team and Invisible War was rushed out the door, the first installment in a hallowed PC franchise to truly, with no disrespect to my console-playing brethren, be “dumbed down for the console ‘tards”.  I knew they’d fuck it up, it would be akin to the Jonas Brothers trying to write a literal sequel to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Invisible War’s endings were all so dystopian and bleak that you not only wondered why the hell you played this mediocre sequel but why you didn’t take your character and go dancing in a minefield, instead of screwing the world up.

Against all odds, however, Deus Ex: Human Revolution manages to not only prove worthy of the name, but even takes steps toward redeeming Invisible War’s many faults.

For those who don’t know, DX:HR places you in the surprisingly stylish floral-print trenchcoat of Adam Jensen, a gravelly-voiced ex-SWAT leader now working corporate security for Sarif Industries, a leader in the science of biomechanical human augmentation.  In the years leading up to the game’s events in 2027 the world has seen some changes, perhaps none more significant than the semi-renaissance brought about by the radical advancement in prosthetic design, for the first time allowing people to replace their natural body parts with improved biomechanical versions.  The transhuman has arrived, and not everyone is thrilled at this.

The fundamental moral question that Human Revolution asks of Jensen, and of the player, is “What defines human to you?”  After nearly being killed at the hands of radically-augmented supersoldiers, Jensen himself is brought back from the brink of death with all the hardware that the bleeding edge of technology at Sarif Industries can muster.  Like previous Deus Ex protagonists J.C. Denton and Alex Denton, you didn’t have a choice in becoming more than human.  Unlike them, Adam was born a regular man.

The gameplay has been criticized by some for lacking the total immersion of the original, though realistically, the alterations to the formula that people complain most often about are simply the result of progress in the art of design.  A third-person cover system allows the stealthy player to remain more aware of their surroundings.  Takedown animations are just bloody cool, as are the deployments of the Typhoon and the Icarus Landing System.  The visual style of the latter two jaunts into the third person are especially evocative of The Matrix, slowing to bullet-time so you can see the augments fire in all their splendor, and who can blame them?  I defy you to drop from a ledge into a pack of enemies, your Icarus suite slowing your descent and violently throwing your enemies backward, seeing them stumble to their feet just in time for Jensen to drop down and fire an explosive hellstorm from his back, only for the camera to pull back in so you can view the results of your devastating assault and not feel like a transhuman badass that would shame the trenchcoatiest of the other trenchcoated cyberpunk badasses in the world.

My criticism goes straight to where all the true criticism goes.  The boss fights.  I don’t mind having to kill, even in a game where you could potentially play without killing a single person other than a boss.  I know that sometimes a situation arises in which it truly is kill or be killed.  The problem arises in how these fights are executed.  Every single boss fight takes place in, and stop me if this sounds at all familiar, a square or circular arena with various pickups strewn around for your convenience, some  chest-high walls and other sporadic cover elements, against an antagonist you know next to nothing about.

It is the last part of this that really gets to me, because Deus Ex had boss fights of its own, as did Invisible War.  Sure, in Deus Ex you could run away, or win without firing a shot, simply by uttering the phrase “Laputan Machine”.  Those are things I miss and I’ll get to the technical faults with the boss fights next, but the biggest problem is that you are not fighting characters.  Gunther Hermann was a character, over-augmented and spiteful over the obsolescence that the nano-augments like Denton promise to bring.  He’s human.  He likes orange soda and thinks the maintenance guy has it in for him because he keeps getting lemon lime.  If you dig around enough you even find out that he’s right.  He genuinely cares for his partner, Anna Navarre, and he doesn’t attack you for betraying his organization, he attacks you for killing his partner.  He’s enraged, he’s tired, he’s a bad speller and goddamnit he wants a skull gun!

Likewise, Anna Navarre is a ruthless agent who genuinely believes that the ends justify the means, and that what she is doing is right, despite being horrifying.  She’ll applaud you for efficiency and lethality in the field, and lament your incompetence if you take your time and resort to non-lethal tactics.  She’s in your face and when the time comes to fight her or not to fight her, you have to make some pretty tough choices.  Walton Simons is a snake-like manipulating bastard from the very opening cutscene, as the game progresses you hate the guy more and more.  Bob Page is most complex of all, the prodigal mastermind whose humanity has all but entirely slipped away.  These are people, people who you feel something for.  Lets take a look at the bosses of Human Revolution.

First comes Final Fantasy VII reference, I mean Barrett.  Guess what his main weapon is.  This gun-armed good ol’ boy waits for you to walk into the Arena and have a good old fashioned fight to the death, with guns and grenades aplenty.  He is also the only boss in the game it is possible to beat without attacking directly, as you can, with patience, circle-strafe around his constant grenade throwing and let him kill himself with the splash damage.  We know nothing about him as a person, we have no reason to care who he is or what he knows other than the fact that he was part of the attack on Sarif HQ.

Yelena Federova, or as I should say, Mohawk Girl because the only reason I know the character’s name is I looked it up on the damn Deus Ex Wiki, is the second boss.  This is a woman you’ve seen kill innocents, and yeah, she probably has this coming.  Does she get any dialogue?  None that I can remember.  Her death is like the turning of a key that allows an altogether different character to provide you with assistance.  This is the only reason you fight her.

Namir, Creepy Muscle Guy, is the third and penultimate boss fight.  His character design may as well have been taken from BODIES – The Exhibition, which I have no doubt is the one and only place where his designers looked for inspiration.  I can at least give a minimal amount of praise to the atmosphere of the arena in which you fight Namir, as it does mimic his art design and aesthetics, even if Adam does come off a bit thick for not noticing the one muscle-sculpture with Murder-Augs all over him is posing directly over his right shoulder while he has a nice chat with Token Evil Bitch.  Namir has some interesting dialogue that could potentially humanize him, and create more conflict in Adam’s life, but all of this is immediately forgotten as soon as you loot any gear you want and leave the room.

The final boss is the only one with whom we have had any genuine interaction with over the course of the game.  Sadly, however, it is a bit of a rehash of the ultimate showdown in Deus Ex 1.  There isn’t any particular reason for it to be and there are some more missed narrative opportunities with the (insert sinister machine project name here).

I’m only giving them so much shit because they were outsourced from the main developer and there game is built entirely around systems that would allow you to potentially avoid Always Fighting On Their Terms.  Jensen never once has the tactical advantage or fights in a place of his choosing.  The first boss in particular is said to be moving around the entire level while you are progressing.  A stealthy player might be able to find a hidden perch from which to snipe his escorts, and even him, from a distance.  A hacker could lock down doors to direct him to a different confrontation room, one where that same hacker might be able to turn some sentry turrets against the boss and win the fight while hiding behind a desk.  All the bosses in the game have similarly simple ways that they could be outwitted.

Thankfully the rest of the game is a spectacular showcase of art design, characterization, tension, and concludes in an ending that is more brilliant than most will ever give it credit for.  Deus Ex is one of the first games to really embrace the “Multiple Ending” design.  the first game had three, Invisible War and Human Revolution both have four.  They all have one thing in common, you, the protagonist have sole power over what the entire outcome of the scenario that has just unfolded will be.  And this is the brilliance, its been here since Deus Ex 1 but it took Human Revolution’s gorgeously simple method of choosing the outcome to truly make me see it.

Heavier spoilers after the jump.

Continue reading

Too Human: The Story of Denis Dyack

Too Human.  Two words.  It is a game that has been in development over ten years.  Originally slated for release on the PlayStation 1, Too Human has since gone through iterations on the Nintendo GameCube and the Xbox 360, where at long last it has seen release.

This story isn’t about the game, though.  This story is about a man who helped make that game.  The man who is most closely associated with that game, and quite possibly, the man who has doomed that game.  Denis Dyack.

Denis Dyack has been around a while.  His studio, Silicon Knights is notable for their successful games Legacy of Kain, and Eternal Darkness.  They also orchestrated the GameCube remake of Kojima Productions’ breakthrough title Metal Gear Solid.  More specifically, Denis Dyack is a fairly talented guy who has gone more than a little bit wacko because of a few things, most notably the overly-long development cycle of a game he clearly has considered to be his magnum opus. Looking at the progression of his behavior and the media coverage of his game, they follow the same downward trend.

After E3 2006, there were many previews of Too Human written based on a demo, a demo that everyone knew was forced out by Microsoft despite being unfinished and unpolished.  Dyack knew what had happened, he knew the demo sucked, he knew why it sucked, and most importantly: everyone who played it knew all the same things. Listen to game journalists back in 2006, after they played that demo. There’s no antipathy. There’s no misunderstanding, there’s no one saying that Too Human was going to be a bad game because of an obviously forced demo. The demo got bad press, because the demo was bad, but that’s not what doomed the Dyack.

The community starts up doing what they do best, shitting things up for everyone.  NeoGAF, 1up boards, commenters across the blagoblags trash the Too Human demo. None of them have played it, most of them are trolls, and nothing they say should hold any merit. That is until Denis starts responding. Here’s a guy who has been working on a project that has crossed a full three systems, has been fighting against an engine that by all accounts was delivered broken and unusable, is starting what will inevitably be a public legal standoff with a very popular and prolific developer, Epic Games.  He is stressed-the-fuck-out.  He’s got to believe in the project, that it will be worth it, because after all the bullshit he’s had to put up with, it HAS to be worth it. Claims get more grandiose, he starts rebutting internet comments. He feeds trolls.

The media starts to turn on him. Luke Smith and Bryan Intihar, both formerly of 1up.com were probably the first two to come out swinging.  Those two came out swinging at a lot of things before they each jumped ship for two very prolific game studios, Bungie and Insomniac respectively. Of course, at this point, Dyack has said that game previews should be abolished, because the system is flawed. Of course it is flawed, but more importantly he feels like he has been particularly scorched by it.

Now one thing that all editorial media outlets have in common is that they don’t like people pissing in their coffee. One need look no further than the treatment of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert by the people at every network and news outlet save NBC, to realize this.  Same thing goes for movies. If a film director or studio doesn’t hold a private screening for critics in advance of the release, they get double secret slammed. Granted, the reason that studios decline advance screenings to critics is usually because they know they’re about to fling a pile of poop into the multiplex and want the general public to remain ignorant as long as they can manage. Still, I’d imagine that a bad movie will be reviewed as a horrible movie for no other reason than scorn.

Take it from me, writers have some egos on them. Its a job requirement of anyone who wants to tell other people what is and is not fit for their cultural consumption. You have to think you know better than everyone else.

Denis Dyack, though, he violates the one inviolable rule of dealing with the media: he points out a flaw. Over a period of time, the mood sours. The more he speaks, the more public opinion turns against him. He becomes the gaming equivalent of a Britney Spears, people report on his crazy antics just because its him, and because his antics be crazy. One other thing about the media: they all love a punching bag. Denis painted a big target on himself and kept adding rings to the bulls-eye through the months leading up to the release, culminating in an utterly ridiculous and intellectually bankrupt manifesto, that can be broken down to “NeoGAF is a shithole and I don’t like them.”

He’s right about that, too, but again, you don’t say that out loud. You certainly don’t pair it with a challenge to one of the web’s largest gaming forums. Now the game is out, the reviews are in, and guess what? They’re all reeking of bias. This is how the media takes their vengeance.  Go read the 1up news coverage of Too Human for the past week. It is vicious and abhorrent. You’d think no one worked at Silicon Knights besides Denis Dyack. The review, the press coverage, everything, they’re not about the game. They’re about Denis Dyack, and getting even. They’re about amplifying the flaws and please, please, pleeeeease, don’t let it sell well so we can run stories about that, too. Almost every piece of writing you can find on the subject from a professional outlet is laden with personal invective and editorial bias, the sort that would get you fired under any other circumstance.

However, Dyack brought this on himself, in a way. He pissed in the coffee, and now he’s going to have to pay the price.

Hopefully they’ll let him off before ritual suicide is invoked, but having all but murdered his career, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.  Too Human is more than a game at this point.  It is a symbol for one of its creators, and appropriately enough an adequate decription of him.  Denis Dyack, the man who was too human.

REVIEW – Iron Man

BRAAANNNNUNNNNG…. I… AM… IRON… MAN… BRAAAANNNUNNNNG…

When Marvel took over their own filmmaking business from the various studios they’d been contracting with, I had my doubts.  When it comes to story, they’ve hardly been at the top of their game in recent years, with ham-fisted political euphemism and dumbass decisions (Spider-Man’s still alive?  Let’s kill him again and give him dildo arms!) clouding their work.

My doubts were unfounded.  Either this is the best move Marvel has ever made, or Robert Downey Jr. is a motherfucking sorcerer, his arcane magics making everything he touches awesome.

As Tony Stark, the titular Iron Man, Downey and director Jon Favreau focus on the human, as opposed to the superhuman.  The film is at heart, a character drama that happens to involve superheroes, heated battles, and evil masterminds.  Stark is a hard-living man’s man.  At once a peerless businessman, intellectual, and cocksman, he’s the ultimate playboy and pusher.  Speaking of Playboy, watch out for Stan Lee in his greatest cameo appearance ever.  Following the explosive opening scene, however, Tony Stark begins a transformation from philandering arms magnate to the ass-kicking, name-taking, shit-stomping one-man-army that the media can only coin Iron Man.

The film’s focus never shifts away from Tony Stark, and those around him, including Gwyneth Paltrow in her most endearing role in years as Stark’s faithful assistant Pepper Potts.  The spectacle comes not as an excuse for, but rather a consequence of the powerful wills and personalities at work. And what would a superhero film be without a hefty dose of spectacle.  From Stark’s initial capture at the hands of a nefarious non-denominational-taliban-surrogate group in Afghanistan, following a test of an impressively destructive missile called the Jericho, the fireworks don’t disappoint.  Jeff Bridges lends an utterly sinister feel to every word, motion, and action of Obadiah Stane, Tony’s partner at the reins of Stark Enterprises.  Sporting a shaved head and strongman’s beard, Bridges comes across as the corporate world’s very own Lucifer, a deceiving double-dealer who shakes your hand while stabbing you in the back.  The climactic showdown between the two titans in their metal monstrosities feels less like an effects showpiece than it does an inevitable confrontation between two men, larger than life, and there’s only room enough for one.

In the end, Iron Man lights a fire underneath its competitors in the increasingly-stale summer-superhero genre.  Robert Downey Jr. is no tortured Bruce Wayne, no awkward Peter Parker, he’s goddamn Iron Man, in the suit and out.

REVIEW: Folklore

The Playstation 3 hasn’t exactly enjoyed the world’s greatest library since its launch. A number of titles that fans were counting on to give them some much-needed value faltered, seemingly because of motion controls, time pressure, or both. Lair and Heavenly Sword arrived to much fanfare but little welcome, as they both were found to be overhyped and deeply-flawed games, moreso in the former than the latter.

In recent weeks, however, things seem to be picking up for the beleaguered Playstation stalwart. Folklore, Ratchet & Clank Future, and The Eye of Judgement have all landed on store shelves. Today, I take a look at Folklore, the fantasy action-RPG from Game Republic. Continue reading

REVIEW: Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction

As this is the first full review on The Chaos Fold, I’m going to take the time to explain my methodology.

I review games based on their play value. If I buy a game that is graphically amazing, but with lackluster controls, a piss-weak storyline, or flawed design principles, I’ll say “Skip it” or something along those lines. If I play a game and enjoy it thoroughly, and believe it is worth the price of admission, I’ll say to buy it or possibly rent it. No arbitrary numbers or star ratings.

And now, without further ado, on with the show. Continue reading

An Open Letter to Roger Ebert

(Ed. Note: This letter was sent to Roger Ebert and the Chicago Sun-Times editorial staff on 20 October, 2007. It is reprinted here for posterity.  Spoilers abound for BioShock and Half-Life 2: Episode 2)

In recent days, much has been made of Mr. Ebert’s comments on the concept of video games being referred to as “art”. Much more has been made of his seeming refusal to consider their value to the artistic canon of the twenty-first century.

As a writer, one not celebrated by any great awards or known beyond a small circle of dear friends, I can appreciate Ebert’s reluctance to admit such a seemingly infantile form into the pantheon of high art. It is a distinction that took many years to be reached by film, television, graphic novels, and many other forms of former folk-devils. Art is subjective, at its very core. I live in Washington D.C. and as such I have access to many famed museums. At the National Gallery of Art, there are a number of paintings that truly stretch the term. The “White Painting” is a white canvas. The “Black Painting” is a black canvas. Strewn nearby are various paintings of black and white in various mixed patterns.

Surely one could make the connection that the white painting is a stirring portrayal of the innate purity of existence. Likewise the black painting could be seen as a brave vision of the bleakness of uncertainty. You can call anything art if you try hard enough, which is a testament to the breadth of the term. Roger Ebert, as a student of film and a much-respected voice in the field of professional critique, is making a mistake with his view on video games. He’s looking at it, as would be expected, as if the games were film.

Video games, have their own unique challenges, drawbacks, and virtues. Much as film was maligned by theater critics for its essential lack of spontaneity, video games have been criticized for their lack of directorial control, so to speak. A player is in control of a video game. A player sits at something aptly-named the “controller” to work their way through a series of pre-determined or vaguely-randomized challenges to reach a conclusion. What this fails to consider is the breadth of video games.

Just as one can call stunning displays of cinematography art, or revolutionary effects art, everything from sound design, to editing, set design, to the performance on the screen art, there is more to video games than plot. Like the handicap of lacking live players, there are ways to compensate for the interactive nature of games.

Many games forego any semblance of story, or maintain a truly abstract one, and focus on something such as a visual beauty, or a transcendent musical score. These are things not uncommon to film. Some of the greatest and most influential films of all time are incredibly abstract. The same holds true for abstract games, where the player is more of a witness to a world that has been crafted solely for its beauty. Two games in particular stand out to me as excellent indicators of this: Shadow of the Colossus, and Rez, both available on the Sony Playstation 2. To someone who is not playing the game, their beauty might be mistaken for noise, but instead, the act of control is what grants them their depth and appeal.

Still more games take narrative approaches, with the player acting as a vessel, an agent of change that pushes through a storyline. Many times, these protagonists are never seen, they may have some identifiable markings to allow the player to identify, but are entirely silent, as the game is seen through the first person. Two games of recent years, BioShock, and Half-Life 2 accomplish this task admirably.

Half-Life has a central character with a name, but with no spoken lines. He is essentially an observer to the drama, and an engine for its continuation. While his compatriot, the stunningly life-like Alyx Vance provides most of the interaction with non-player characters, Gordon Freeman is the stoic scientist fighting against the world. When Alyx’s father is tragically killed at the end of Episode 2, the most recent expansion to the story, the game fades slowly to black, the only backdrop her unrestrained mourning, as she wails over her father’s lifeless body. The player has no control over the events for the last scene, being held captive, left to do nothing but watch helplessly. In this case, the ability of the player to control an actor, and yet be powerless to change the outcome, enhances the artistic quality, and does not detract from it.

Bioshock, too, employs a similar narrative device. The game is linear, in that there is only one path that can be taken to reach from the beginning of the game to the end. The developers, actors, and artists behind the undersea art-deco utopia of Rapture know their limitations, and instead turn them to advantages. At roughly the game’s mid-way point, the player is greeted with a disturbing revelation, that they are infact a puppet, enslaved by the code-phrase “Would you kindly”. The player is forced to watch, powerless, as control is wrested from them by this revelation. As you watch yourself kill an unarmed man simply because he told you to, the player is filled with a desire for revenge on the one who inflicted this on him. The rest of the game is a rush toward a climactic showdown with that nefarious influence, and ultimately liberation.

If the question of art comes down to emotional impact, I can say with certainty that all of the aforementioned video games had great emotional impact on me. I even cried at the conclusion of BioShock. Am I saying all games are art? Of course not, but I’m not saying all movies are art, either. In any form that can make claim to that name, there are exceptions. Video games, in their infancy, are just starting to ascend to that high throne. Games take influence from film, yes. They also take influence from classical music, from literature, folklore, painting, and sculpture, as have they all from each other.

There is much dreck in gaming. There is also much “beautiful trash” as you put it. Products designed to entertain and sell, with little more to them. If you approach them with an open mind, however, and I do for my part hope to have opened yours a bit, you can find art.

Sincerely and Respectfully,

Andrew Zimmer