Thursday, June 23, 2011

Video Game Review: Monster Tale

Monster Tale is a new DS game released in March of this year. Created by new developers DreamRift and published by Majesco, Monster Tale is a game in two parts. The top screen of the DS is home to a Metroidvania-style platform adventure following Ellie, a young girl imbued with a magical armband and trapped in an alternate universe she's trying to find her way home from. The bottom screen is a pet-raising sim where Ellie's monster companion, Chomp, can use items to grow and evolve into new forms.

Monster Tale got fairly high ratings from most review sites, and it's not difficult to see why. It's a good game that works fairly well and shows some promise. If this is the sort of thing DreamRift delivers on their debut game, then I look forward to seeing what they can produce in the future. But does this game hold up on its own merits? Sadly, not entirely.

The adventure side of the game is short and aside from a few frustrating parts is never really a challenge. None of the abilities Ellie will recieve are very imaginative, every one of them (aside from the roll) is only a new type of armband shot or a new melee attack. The story shows the potential for being interesting but is desperately in need of a few more rewrites, and the characters are bland and one-dimensional.

The monster-raising sim on the bottom screen is remarkably shallow considering the amount of thought that seems to have been put into it. Items will drop from enemies and can be picked up and sent to the bottom screen. Your monster can use these items to gain experience and stats, and to evolve into new forms. If you give your monster items it likes it'll evolve faster, but that's about the extent of that.

None of the forms have a particularly interesting appearance either. Really, they're all just slight variations on the base form, adding claws, horns, wings, scales, etc. Each form has one usable power and one trait which, once mastered, can be used on other forms. None of the abilities or traits are particularly interesting either. As for your monster himself, he's slow to attack and never deals much damage. You'll probably use him for healing if you use him at all, but given how easy the game is don't expect to need health often.

KR Rating: GOOD
Overall, Monster Tale is a decent game that shows the potential for a great game. I'll certainly be watching DreamRift in the future, but sadly Monster Tale is not the contender I was promised. It's too short and too shallow. It borrows too heavily from games like Metroid and Castlevania, while not being much better.

If you want to play an imaginative platform adventure with interesting abilities, pick up Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow for the DS, Drill Dozer for the GBA, or Shaman King: Master of Spirits for the GBA. If you want a game that successfully combines pet-raising with action and adventure try the PS2's Castlevania: Harmony of Darkness, or better yet just play one of the Pokemon or Shin Megami Tensei games. As for Monster Tale? It's definitely worth a try, but don't expect anything ground-breaking.

Annotation From The Future:

When I said that I was expecting good things from DreamRift I wasn't lying. Monster Tale wasn't a great game, but it did show potential. If the game had been given more polish it could have been the classic that was promised to us.

Sadly, DreamRift hasn't delivered much on that promise of potential. They developed exactly one other game, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion (which did receive good reviews at least), before disappearing. Fortunately, while DreamRift has been quiet they're not quite dead. The company began a new, unannounced and as yet unnamed, project in 2012. Going by statements made by the company's heads, this game might be Monster Tale 2. If it is then you can bet you'll be seeing a review of it here.

If not, well, DreamRift wouldn't be the first video game company to have "died before their time" as its epitaph.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Television Review: Deadliest Warrior

For the uninitiated, Spike TV's Deadliest Warrior is a series created by Max Geiger, based around a computer program by Slitherine Strategies. This program is capable of taking complex data and running a realistic battle simulation with it, which they then do 1,000 times. In theory this allows them to enter data about historical warriors and finally settle the age old question of who would win in a fight.

The competition angle is definitely not the show's strongest suit, but what is awesome about the show are the weapons and armor demonstrations. If the entire show was just them looking at history's greatest warriors and examining the tools of their trade in gory detail it would be completely awesome. Unfortunately, as mentioned, the show falls apart when it gets into the competition aspect. Here are the top 3 reasons I will probably not be tuning in when the show returns on July 20th of this year.

3. Why are vikings fighting samurai?
I'll go ahead and say it: the fact that they didn't put ninjas against pirates should be a crime. They made a show about which ancient warriors would win in battle, and didn't do the single most hotly debated matchup of all time? That's like doing a series about famous wars of the 20th century and skipping World War 2.

Now that that's out of the way, I still have to wonder about some of their picks. Knight vs. pirate? Maori warrior vs. Shaolin monk? I get that the idea was to be outlandish so as to take full advantage of the anachronism stew they created, but the result is ridiculously unbalanced. You can usually name the winner of these early episodes from the beginning, or at least the halfway mark, once you realize that no amount of steel armor can stop a cannon, or that the ninja has like two weapons with killing potential while the spartan is so heavily armed even his shield can kill you in one hit.

As mentioned, though, these are early episodes. The reason this is only number 3 is because this is really only a problem in the first season. There seems to have been an early desire to do "strength vs. speed" and "skill vs. ferocity" fights. By season 2 they started sticking to closer matchups. This kind of goes back to a bigger problem, though.

2. It's not a realistic battle simulation.
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that the computer program they use is anything less than amazing. It's deep and capable of taking so many factors into account. The problem isn't with the program, it's with the entire concept. The program can only simulate the physical attributes of the fighters: strength, speed, size, weapons, and armor, and that's really all you can expect it to do.

Thing is, there are so many more important factors to a battle than that. There's also skill, training, determination, and most important of all strategy. Yes, they run these simulations 1,000 times but it doesn't matter. It wouldn't matter if they ran them a billion times, they still can't factor in strategy. If you don't get why that's a problem, remember that in a purely physical matchup England would have demolished the Continental Army in the American Revolution, the Nazis would have crushed the French Resistance in a day, and the people of Afghanistan would have been easily conquered by the Soviet Union.

Not only would I say that strategy is the most important part of battle, I might even go so far as to say that proper strategy, along with the skill and determination to carry it out, is the only truly important part of battle. But hey, that can be forgiven. If DW's magic program could simulate strategy the ninjas would've just poisoned the Spartans in their sleep 1,000 times over, making for the most boring episode ever. The real issue is...

1. You're not a Spartan, okay?
Here's where the show gets stupid: the trash talking between the weapons experts they bring on the show. It's one thing when it's something like the Green Beret vs. Spetsnaz episode, where the weapons experts for each side are actualy former Green Beret and Spetsnaz commandoes, but then we get episodes like Apache vs. gladiator. I shouldn't have to tell you this, but they did not resurrect either an Apache warrior or a gladiator for this episode. The weapons experts have no stake in this fight and no reason to dislike each other, yet they're bordering on death threats.

I'm sure this was the idea of the producers. Experts who have appeared on the show have also implied that the producers pressured them to show off weapons that were cool as opposed to weapons that would have actually been used. (Case in point: the hookswords in the Shaolin monk episode which, while undeniably badass, are debatably not even actual ancient weapons and even if they were they were certainly not the mainstay weapon that episode implied.)

This is easily the biggest problem with the show: all the things they added in purely to boost the "cool" factor. I suppose it's to be expected, this is a Spike TV production after all, but it is really irritating to the point of being honestly painful to watch and it ruins the fun of watching the weapons demonstrations.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Toast To The Old Cowboys of the Net

In the 90's we had a second wild west: the internet. The internet was the new frontier. The trail had been blazed by the pioneers of the 80's, paving the way for an internet that was still wild and untamed yet worked well enough to be accessible. We flocked to this new wild west, some of us seeking a new start amidst the anonymity of the net, some seeking to have fun in a world of freedom.

That's the operative word for that time: freedom. Mainstream society was mostly ignoring the internet, so there wasn't any real strict system of governance in place, yet at the same time it wasn't total anarchy; you found out what was accepted by your community and you worked with it. There was a casual atmosphere, a lot of individuality, and a sense that people gave a shit.

Even our outcasts had a certain amount of charm to them. One of the outcasts we had back in my own old haunt was a guy named Dan Moore. Dan suffered from severe autism, so severe in fact it bordered on schizophrenia. He had no ability to differentiate fantasy from reality. All of his problems eventually lead to what almost become a civil war on the message board when he acted on one of his role-playing conflicts out of character and no one realized it wasn't real until it was too late.

While it doesn't feel right to call a genuinely mentally ill person an insulting term like "annoying" he was, at the least, very frustrating to deal with. And yet, I'd rather spend every day with him then the average denizen of TVTropes, 4Chan, Youtube, or really any place on the internet today.

Much like the old west, however, soon everyone started moving in. The common users just wanted to be a part of the "big new thing." Then there was the government, terrified by some of the bad things that happened on the net and determined to bring order to what they saw as a lawless land filled with bandits and psychopaths. Of course, there were also the corporations, determined to squeeze some money out of the internet. The small communities are now almost all gone, replaced by mega-sites and social networks like Youtube and Facebook. The individuality and casual atmosphere are both gone too, replaced by the drumbeat mantra of pseudo-civilized society: "Fit in. Follow. FIT IN."

Half of the internet became all Serious Business, strict rules, and prim and proper social conduct, walking the wire knowing one slip will have you ostracized as a "troll." The other half, either due to a misguided sense of "returning things to the way they were" or maybe just a good old fashioned lack of ethics, became the highwaymen of our new west, falling into memes and sadism.

Then there's the old cowboys of the net, like myself, who suddenly find there's no place for us anymore. Freedom, true freedom is a terrible, beautiful thing. It's a gift from God Himself, abjectly horrifying to those who've never known it, but to those of us who have seen it nothing else can ever hope to compare.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Television Review: Loonatics Unleashed

Chances are you've heard of Loonatics before, though that's probably thanks to the many caustic reviews and parody videos. The show was being mocked before it even came out, thanks to the early designs for the new characters. I wish I could say it didn't deserve it but, well, it did.

This episode brought to you by the letters L, S, and D!

The designs were mocked relentlessly, culminating in an internet petition demanding the designs either be changed or the show be cancelled. Proving once and for all that internet petitions do actually work but only in the most half-ass way possible, the designs were changed. Buzz Bunny became Ace Bunny, Loonatics became Loonatics Unleashed, and Roadrunner and Coyote's relationship became more homoerotic than a million Kirk/Spock slashfics put together.

Sorry, you'll have to look up those Roadrunner/Coyote pics on your own time.

You've probably heard of the concept of "AU" or alternate universe material. Basically the idea is that you take existing character or plot concepts and re-imagine them in a new genre or setting. Loonatics Unleashed isn't exactly an alternate universe, these characters are meant to be the far future descendants of the originals, but it's the same basic concept. Some people consider AU material to be source-destroying sacrilege, but not me. Maybe it's because I'm more of a creative person myself, but I always enjoyed exploring new concepts based on the same characters. So on paper this is exactly the kind of show I would like.

The problem is that even judged on its own merits, this show is objectively terrible. The characters are shallow and one-dimensional. The plot is boring with twists most people could see coming a mile away. The writing is genuinely awful and smacks of having been made up as they went along. The best example of this would be how the intro sequence calls the planet the Loonatics live on Acmetropolis, yet all of the characters refer to it as Earth for most of season 1.

Even worse than the writing, however, are the original characters. There's nothing wrong with AU material adding an original character or two to spice things up or fill a niche no source-character can fill. The problem is with the exception of the Loonatics themselves every character in the first season is an original creation. There's no far future Marvin the Martian, or high tech bounty hunter Elmer Fudd, at least not until season 2.

So let's talk about season 2, then! The show does get much, much better in the second season. That's when they added in re-imagined versions of the other Looney Tunes characters. They also seemed to spend more time on writing, actually adding some dimension to the characters. A few of the season 2 episodes could even be called good, including It Came From Outer Space, starring a revised Marvin the Martian, and Family Business, which finally gives Rev Runner and Tech E. Coyote personalities. The show is definitely at its best during episodes like this.

Unfortunately, there's just not enough of them. Most of the episodes still revolve around original characters, often even going so far as to make the revised characters play lackey to the newly created villains! To make things worse, while the writing does get better in season 2 it's still not what you would call good. There are gaping plot holes all through the thing, and nonsensical lines that were clearly put in just to lead into puns that are never funny enough to justify it.

In the end, though, the biggest problem Loonatics has is that combining superhero fight sequences and Looney Tunes sight gags creates a disconnect that makes it impossible to know when you're supposed to be taking things seriously. One episode repeatedly has two of the characters get crushed under falling rocks as a cheap sight gag, then halfway through it traps the same characters in an unstable cavern and suddenly expects us to consider falling rocks to be a legitimate threat. No. It doesn't work that way. If the writers had actually tried they could probably have found a way to reconcile these two conflicting styles, but they didn't. They just let it go and hoped we wouldn't notice.

KR Rating: BAD

Is Loonatics as bad as you heard? Yes. Hell yes. Indisputably, yes, it is every bit as bad as you heard. To be fair, the second season is a vast improvement over the unmitigated train wreck that was the first season, and even occasionally borders on good. But there's still just way too much lazy writing. Like most bad cartoons, Loonatics seems to operate on the assumption that kids are stupid so it doesn't matter if the show makes sense.

At the same time, there are worse cartoons out there, and worse Looney Tunes spinoffs at that. The only reason this show is still so reviled is because of those caustic reviews and parody videos I mentioned before. Loonatics Unleashed wasn't just a high profile failure, it was a high profile failure on the internet, which -if Lolcats and Struttin' Leo are any indication- never lets anything go ever.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Best 8 Indie Games Ever Made Anciliary: A Dwarf Fortress Review

Back near the beginning of 2010 I wrote a post for this blog about the 8 best indie games ever made. Aside from being my most popular post with a total of 1,974 page views as of this writing, it also got a number of comments demanding to know why Dwarf Fortress was not on the list and I had to admit that I hadn't played it.

It's not that I hadn't heard of Dwarf Fortress, I had. Rather, I was intentionally avoiding the game. All of the things I read about it made it sound like a complicated mess that was basically unplayable unless you were a Stephen Hawking level genius. Sort of like SimCity 3, which was so strict that if you built a fire station before your town was "ready" for it you would go bankrupt almost instantly. But I digress.

Eventually I did get around to downloading and playing Dwarf Fortress. After all the glowing reviews I was certain that once I was done I'd be able to sit down and write a new post singing the game's praises and lamenting that I'd not played it before.

Sadly, I just can't do that. It's not that the game is bad, and I am happy to say that my preconceptions were dead wrong, it's just...well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

For anyone who might be reading this who doesn't know what Dwarf Fortress is, a good way to describe it is this: Dwarf Fortress is basically like Minecraft for people who think Minecraft is too shallow and limited. Dwarf Fortress is complicated in a good way. You'll probably need a guide to get started (Here ya go!) but once you get into it the game is intuitive, deep, and best of all works. (Seriously, fuck you, SimCity 3.)

The only real fault with the game itself is that it's in the "losing is fun" genre of games. As fans of the game will be happy to tell you, you'll never know what fun really is until you conquer the beasts of Hell itself and wrest it from their vile claws. (Granted, even if that's true it's still not losing that's fun, so much as winning over seemingly insurmountable odds.) The problem is, unlike with other LIF games like Spelunky, you're not just losing a few minutes but potentially days, weeks, or months of your life every time you lose.

As with Dungeon Crawl, however, I'm willing to give this one a pass on the grounds that you can always just back up your saves if you don't want to lose everything.

No, the reason I can't make that worshipful post is simply that this isn't the universally awesome ultimate game I was promised. Dwarf Fortress is just not for a lot of people and sadly I'm one of them. Those who follow my blog are well aware that I'm not a graphics whore, but even so ASCII graphics just never did it for me. (Though I will say this game makes possibly the best use of them that I've ever seen.) I've also never been a huge fan of simulation games. Mostly, though, I just don't have time for a game like this right now. Those of you who know me probably know why and those who don't know me have no reason to care, so I won't burden you with the details. Maybe in the future when my life is working properly I'll come back to this game, but not now.

KR Rating: GREAT

So, if I were to rewrite the Top 8 Indie Games today, would I include Dwarf Fortress? No contest, I absolutely would*. Hell, it might even take the number 1 spot! It's objectively good and easily the deepest game I've ever played. The only real problem is, despite the adulation of its fans, it's simply not universally enjoyable. Dwarf Fortress is the textbook definition of a niche game. If you're not into sim games, don't like ASCII graphics, or simply don't have time for a game that will devour hours and even weeks of your life with the very real risk of losing it all to one unlucky incident, then this game has nothing for you.

If you, are okay with those things or even suspect you might be okay with them, then I strongly recommend giving this game a shot. Go ahead and get it here.

*I would also include Tastes Like Spelunky (sorry, vanilla Spelunky) and Minecraft.