A History of Control(lers)

Video game controllers are something I have a lot of strong feelings about. When a game has a multi-console release, I don’t care too much about framerates or 720p vs. 1080p. Exclusive content usually doesn’t sell me on one or the other. But the controller – how comfortable it feels in my hands, and how intuitive playing the game will be – that’s important to me.

So today, I’d like to go through a (completely biased) history and review of all the console controllers that have been a part of my gaming life.

NES (1985)

I remember the good old days. Days when controllers were simple. When ergonomics was a term I had never heard. When I didn’t spend all day in front of a computer with my hands on a keyboard and need to worry about repetitive strain injuries. I was 7, and holding a blocky NES controller was second nature to me.

NES controller

Looking back, it’s not a pretty controller. And it’s definitely not a comfortable controller to hold. But it did its job for me at the time, and having only 2 buttons was good enough for the games of that era. Of course, I’m not 7 anymore and my hands are no longer child-sized. Games have also become much more complex. Luckily, controllers evolved.

Sega Genesis (1988)

The Sega Genesis was released in North America three years after the NES and it introduced a much nicer controller.

With the jump to a 16-bit CPU, Sega introduced a controller with a third button. Though the positioning of the buttons was a bit odd, the extra button was nice (and a few years later they introduced a 6-button version). The D-Pad allowed you to push in 8 directions. The shape of the controller was a huge improvement and much more comfortable to hold.

SNES (1991)

Nintendo entered the 16-bit era with the SNES.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System controller

The biggest improvement over the NES controller was the introduction of more buttons. X and Y were added and the diagonal placement of the buttons really worked and became a mainstay for most future controllers. Left and right shoulder buttons were also introduced, bringing the button count up to six. The D-Pad remained pretty much the same and though they added some curves, the way you held the controller didn’t change much.

Playstation (1995)

Sony entered the console wars with the 32-bit PlayStation.

Original PlayStation controller

This is console the one that spawned my love of RPGs. It’s also the one that added the phrase “No, I don’t want to come outside, I’m playing video games” to my daily vocabulary. The PS controller was an absolute joy to use after so many years of Nintendo bricks. PS added another pair of shoulder buttons (L2/R2), but other than that the button configuration was pretty much the same as the SNES. The the four face buttons were labelled with shapes/colours, likely so they weren’t directly ripping off Nintendo. The grip handles were the big selling feature for me, and (thankfully) soon every major console controller would have them.

N64 (1996)

Nintendo, not to be outdone by Sony, released the 64-bit N64 a year later. It was a more powerful machine but still relied on expensive, limited-capacity cartridges rather than moving to CD-ROMs. In terms of sales, the N64 was hugely outperformed by the PlayStation.

Nintendo 64 controller

Here is where the slow descent into madness starts. The N64 controller was odd in that there were a couple different ways you could grip it. It could be held in the traditional way, with the left and right grips – meaning you had to use the D-Pad, and would not be able to reach the analog stick or the trigger (Z-button) underneath. Well, actually you could reach those, but it wasn’t comfortable. I don’t even want to tell you how I held this controller for my first few months of playing Goldeneye. The other option was to hold the center grip and right grip – this way you could use the analog stick and trigger, but couldn’t use the D-Pad or left shoulder button. Not being able to easily reach every button on a controller was a very strange design decision. Nintendo also recreated the wheel by dropping the X and Y buttons and replacing them with 4 smaller C-buttons.

In 1997 the Rumble Pak was released, making the N64 controller the first one that could vibrate in response to in-game events. The Rumble Pak was a separate peripheral that got plugged into the memory slot on the controller.

PlayStation DualShock (1998)

It didn’t come with a new console, but Sony released an even better PS controller a couple of years later.

Playstation Dual Shock controller

In 1998, the DualShock controller was released for the PlayStation, which added a number of new features. Most obvious were the two analog sticks, which gave gamers a choice between the D-Pad or the stick for movement, and opened up the door for camera control using the right stick. You could also press the analog sticks down, giving two more buttons to play with (L3/R3). Sony one-upped Nintendo’s Rumble Pak by adding internal vibration motors. The DualShock’s rumblings were far superior to the Rumble Pak’s loud and jarring gyrations.

PlayStation 2 (2000)

Oh PS2, how I loved you. What a great console with an amazing library of games. And that backwards compatibility… It’s the best-selling console of all time for a reason.

PlayStation 2 - DualShock 2 controller

Functionally and aesthetically, the DualShock 2 was not much different from the DualShock 1. Kudos to Sony for not messing with a good thing.

XBox (2001)

In 2001 Microsoft began their journey into the console market with the XBox.
Microsoft XBox controller
The original XBox controller was a hulking beast. I don’t even think that people with large hands liked it much, as even though it had a huge surface area, the buttons were inexplicably squished together. For me, Microsoft’s best design choice was swapping the positions of the D-Pad and left stick, which made everything feel much more balanced. The XBox controller had nice solid feeling trigger buttons, and also added two small black and white buttons (which I honestly can’t even remember a use for).

Nintendo GameCube (2001)

After the N64, which had some great games but lackluster sales, Nintendo released the GameCube, hoping to turn things around. Unfortunately, the sales were still dwarfed by the PS2.

Nintendo GameCube controller

The GameCube controller was quite different from the N64′s. They got rid of the middle grip, which was good. However, they also completely reconfigured the buttons again. Now we were back to 4 buttons (A, B, X, Y) on the controller face, which had 3 different shapes. There was a left and right Trigger, and the Z-button got moved above the right Trigger and changed into a shoulder button. There was no corresponding shoulder button on the left side. Like the XBox, the GameCube controller put the left stick above the D-Pad. I think the GameCube controller is funny looking, but it’s actually my favourite offering from Nintendo.

XBox Controller S (2002)

The next year Microsoft released a more reasonably sized controller for the Xbox, which became the standard.

Microsoft XBox controller

The A, B, X, Y buttons were moved into more standard positions with better spacing, though Start and Back got moved got moved to the left side because giant logo placement is clearly most important. It wasn’t quite there yet, but Microsoft was well on its way to creating a very good thing.

XBox 360 (2005)

Microsoft got a head start on the 7th console generation by releasing the 360 a scant four years after the original XBox.

XBox 360 wireless controller

And here it is. The XBox 360 wireless controller – the pinnacle of gamepad design. I love everything about this controller – the shape, the weight of it in my hands, the perfect placement of every button, trigger and stick in relation to my fingers. It’s sleek and smooth, the black and white buttons from the original XBox controller were removed and replaced with left and right bumpers. The center Guide button was added to turn the console or controllers on and off, or access the 360′s menu. If I could use this controller on every console I’d be a happy girl.

Of course, the problem the best controller being released in 2005 is that the future designs just feel inferior (some more than others).

 PlayStation 3 (2006)

Sony came out with two controller for the PS3 – the Sixaxis and the DualShock 3. However, they’re almost identical so I’ll address them both at once.

Sony PS3 Sixaxis control

Sony seemed to like the design of the DualShock, so the appearance of PS3′s DualShock 3 and Sixaxis controllers was very similar. The Analog button was removed, and a PS button (which functioned much like the 360′s Guide button) added. These controllers also used motion sensing technology to experiment with motion controls. Heavy Rain was the only game I played on the PS3 that used this (actually, it was the only game I ever finished on the PS3, period) and the motion controls weren’t as obnoxious as I expected.

Wii (2006)

The Wii was the last of the 7th generation of consoles, and with its release came the realization that I was definitely not Nintendo’s target audience anymore.

Nintendo Wiimote and nunchuk

Nintendo went off the motion control deep end with the Wii Remote. The Wii Remote is long and skinny, designed to be used with one hand and pointed at the motion sensor. The labelling of the buttons was completely changed – again. Now there was a 1 and 2 where A and B would usually be. A was now a big button near the D-Pad, while B was a trigger on the underside of the remote. Start and Select were now + and -. Some games used the Wii Remote on its own, while others added the nunchuck which gave players an analog stick for movement and a C trigger button. I guess using completely awkward controls and flailing around could be fun if you’re: a) a child, b) playing Wii Sports with a group of people, c) drunk, but otherwise these controllers are total bullshit.

Wiimote horizontal grip

Some games let you hold the Wii Remote horizontally… I have nothing nice to say about this.

Wii Classic Controller

If you hated the Wii Remote, Nintendo also sold the Classic Controller (along with about 90 other accessories). With the exception of the analog sticks, the Classic Controller has a very similar design and shape as an SNES controller. Because of all the controllers you could replicate, why not copy the one released in 1991? Attach the cord to the bottom instead of the top just to show what a special snowflake you are as well.

Wii U (2012)

The Wii U was marketed terribly, and sold accordingly (though it seems to be improving now). As someone who pretty much stopped paying attention to Nintendo after the Wii, I was under the impression that the Wii U Gamepad was the new system, rather than the controller for a long time. Sigh. Nintendo, why don’t you want me to love you? (I could probably write a whole post on this).

Wii U gamepad

The Wii U Gamepad is huge. Like a handheld console, except even bigger. The thing that drives me crazy about many Nintendo controllers (well, one of the things) is that no matter how big the device gets – whether it’s the Wii U Gamepad or the 3DS XL – the controls stay child-sized. The D-Pad is small, the buttons are tiny and close together. My hands aren’t even large, but I pick up a DS and think “wow, this definitely was not designed to be held by me”.

The one cool thing about the Gamepad is that you can use it like a handheld and play in bed or something while the console is in the other room (you do have to get up to put the disc in though). However, playing with this monstrosity when you’re sitting in front of the TV the Wii U is connected to is so completely unappealing. It just isn’t at all comfortable to hold. The touchpad is used to as a 2nd screen to supplement gameplay in a lot of games. That can include things like displaying the track map in Mario Kart 8 (a feature which does not offend me), or having to blow into the microphone or rub the screen to reveal secrets in Super Mario 3D World (a feature which is fucking obnoxious).

Wii U Pro Controller

Thank goodness Nintendo had the sense to release a proper controller for the Wii U, because if I had to use the Gamepad or a Wiimote I would never touch the thing (which would be a shame, because Mario and Donkey Kong are fun). The Pro Controller looks like a rip-off of the 360 controller. I don’t know how Microsoft feels about this, but I think this was an excellent design decision. For some reason they’ve swapped the positions of the right stick and A/B/X/Y buttons, which makes this controller more awkward than it needs to be, but it’s still 100x better than the other options for the Wii U.

PlayStation 4 (2013)

The PlayStation 4 is currently the most powerful console. Apparently, with great power comes great responsibility… and the need to “improve” on an already very good controller.

PlayStation 4 DualShock 4

The DualShock 4 is pretty similar to the DualShock 3, but made a few changes. The grips are wider apart and the Start/Select (now Options and Share) have been moved to the top in order to make room for an gratuitously large touch pad. In games like Tomb Raider and Murdered: Soul Suspect, the touch pad is used open the game menu or map which is okay by me, even though it’s too big for this to be the main function. However, a game like Infamous: Second Son makes you swipe the touchpad to perform certain actions, which feels totally unnecessary. They also added a large light bar along the top edge of the controller. Apparently it’s used for player identification, though the light will often change colours based on things happening in the games. Generally the bar glows a really bright blue, so if you’re playing in the dark don’t tip the controller up if you don’t want to be blinded.

The speaker added to the controller is kind of cool, and the motion sense is still there, but has been used sparingly in most games I’ve played.

XBox One (2013)

The XBox One is the most recent major console release.

XBox One controllerMost of the development for this controller was focused on refinement, while the design was left relatively the same. The textures of the analog sticks have changed and gotten a little smaller. The Start and Back buttons were relabeled. The biggest improvements are on the bumpers and triggers – they feel really nice, solid, and responsive now. The Guide button now glows white instead of a muted green. I’m not sure what it is about the latest generation and making the controllers glow so brightly – isn’t the glow from the tv enough? I don’t find the XBox One controller quite as comfortable to hold as the 360′s, but it’s pretty close.

Top 5

Here’s the TLDR version of what I’d rate the best major console controllers from 1985 onwards.

  1. XBox 360
  2. PS DualShock 2
  3. XBox One
  4. Nintendo GameCube
  5. PS DualShock 4

And the worst? Pretty much everything else from Nintendo, with the Wii Remote taking home the award of “controller I’d most like to throw in a fire.”

What do you think? What are the best and worst console controllers?

Goodbye Cruel World (of Warcraft)

I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for 8 years. In December, I decided I had played enough. I would have quit then, except I happened to be the GM of my guild and didn’t want to leave them in a lurch or not finish off the final raid tier with them. Now we’ve killed heroic Garrosh a few times, our roster looks pretty solid, and I finally feel like I can stop without feeling like I’m abandoning the guild when they need me. Last night I did my last raid and handed over the GM keys.

Though I can’t say that playing for 6 months longer than I wanted to has left me with the sunniest of dispositions in regards to the game, I’m not going to bash WoW or blame Blizzard, complain about changes that have driven me away. The title of this post is just something I couldn’t resist the drama of. The game is fine, when it’s what you’re into. Raid encounters in Mists were good for the most part. Challenge modes were great. The expansion gave players a ton of new stuff to do. I’m also not going to complain about changes that are upcoming. The changes to healing sound great and much-needed, and the ability pruning hunters are getting is also a good thing. I’m not crazy about the all orc dudes all the time direction the developers seem set on continuing, but I’ve also never cared about the story in this game, so it’s not really something I can complain about.

The only grudge I hold is for the complete lack of action that has taken place to remedy the problem of having content rushed at the beginning of an xpac then leaving the last tier to fester for far too long. After 6 years and three expansions, you’d think some kind of learning would happen.

It’s not the game, it’s me. Priorities have changed. When deciding between playing a game I can finish vs. one that never ends, I’d rather pick the one I can play, enjoy, complete, then put down. I’d rather read a book, take my dog for a walk, or spend time with my boyfriend. Games should be an escape, but this one turned into an anchor.

Never say never I guess, but at this point I have no plans to purchase the expansion, or keep my account active any longer than I’ve got it paid up for. I’m pretty sure it would be impossible for me to be casually interested in WoW or play without raiding. I think the MMO chapter of my gaming life is over. I’ll miss everyone in Apotheosis, all the good times I’ve had in raids, dungeons, and RBGs with people I really enjoy playing with. Luckily most of the people who kept me playing this game over the few last years are either close by or just 140 characters away on Twitter.

I’ll miss blogging about it. Sometimes talking about the game could be even more enjoyable than playing the game. Cannot be Tamed is not going anywhere, but I don’t expect to have much to say much about WoW anymore. I have been really into talking about other games and gaming topics lately though, so I’m going to continue on with that. I’d love if you stuck around to talk to me about other games, but I’ll understand if you mostly came here for WoW info.

So thanks for all the good times, WoW. It’s been quite the ride.

Game Dealbreakers

In my last post, Corinna left a comment suggesting that I try out The Longest Journey and its sequels if I’m looking for a game with a great female protagonist. I’ve actually played TLJ, and at one point owned Dreamfall on XBox, but never played through it because I couldn’t stand the controls. That gave me the idea for this post. Game dealbreakers – the things that can absolutely ruin a game for me, often to the point of never playing it again.

Bad Controls

Bad control schemes are probably the most unforgivable thing for me in games. I hate when a game makes me want to play it, then makes the act of playing it incredibly frustrating. At this point I don’t even remember what it was about the controls for Dreamfall that made me so mad, but it was bad enough to me that I never played past the intro despite its predecessor being one of my favourite games ever. Now you might ask me “Pam, why didn’t you just pick it up on PC if you hated the Xbox controls?” And that would be a totally fair question. I have no idea, it was 8 years ago. I think a replay of The Longest Journey and getting Dreamfall for PC is in order soon though.

In terms of controls, the Resident Evil series is one of the worst offenders. I hate tank controls where you have to rotate your character with one analog stick, while the other makes them go straight forward or straight back. It’s so clunky and slow, especially in an action game. RE4 is the only game in the series I actually played through because the controls turned me right off.

It looks much cooler than it felt to play.

It looks much cooler than it felt to play.

At the top of this list though is a certain scene in The Force Unleashed where you needed to take down a star destroyer. I don’t think a video game has ever induced so much rage in me. This tiny little portion of the game ruined the whole thing for me. It introduced a completely new type of controls and implemented them very poorly. The game did a bad job of letting you know what you were supposed to do, did a bad job of giving you feedback about if you were doing it right (other than the game over screen) and the controls were just unresponsive and gross. In the middle of it, I actually went tearing through my house, searching for a hammer so that I could smash the game disc into a thousand pieces. In the end I did not give into my anger and I finished the game but even thinking about it, 6 years later, makes me mad.

Also on this list – games that doesn’t let me invert the Y axis controls.

Point of No Return

A lot of games have a point of no return, a point you hit where you’re driven to the end game without the option of going back to explore or finish sidequests. Most games handle this well, and make it explicitly clear that this will happen. However, some games don’t.

The first game I remember being problematic in this way was Legend of Dragoon. I was right near the end of the game, still had a few optional bosses to fight (which apparently dropped really good stuff) but I ended up travelling to the end location, which I couldn’t get back from. It wasn’t made very clear that you couldn’t come back. So, even though I was standing basically right in front of the final boss, I quit. I think I finally went back about a year later so I could say that I had finished the game.

All this gold... for nothing.

All this gold… for nothing.

The worst offender of taking you to the point of no return without telling you was Fable 3. I spent a lot of hours in that game. I did every quest, tried to get every achievement. In the last portion of the game you’re preparing for a big attack on Albion and how much of your kingdom survives is based on how much gold you have in the treasury. I had a zillion gold in my personal treasury, but was waiting until the last-minute before transferring it over to Albion’s treasury. Little did I know that the “last-minute” was (according to the in-game time) 121 days before the attack. At 121 days before the attack I woke up, held court, then all of a sudden (without notice or a chance to do anything else) it was the day of the attack, Albion had no gold in the treasury, all the people were about to die. And of course Fable 3 uses autosaves and a single save file. I was livid. I deleted that save file and have never finished the game.

It’s so cute!

I’ve always loved JRPGs, but a number of them are so damn cute it makes me sick. I never played Windwaker because I couldn’t get over the art style. I tried Eternal Sonata and Radiata stories, but all the characters were so fracking precious that I had to stop.

Na no Kuni

Kill it with fire.

I went out and bought a PS3 specifically so I could play Na no Kuni, but after playing adorable characters and collecting 100 adorable pokeman familiars and having to feed them adorable cupcakes I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Scary

I am a giant wimp when it comes to scary games.

Ughhh, make it stop.

Ughhh, make it stop.

I tried to play Silent Hill 1 a long time ago, and I lasted for maybe 30 minutes. I got through the intro but as soon as I picked up that radio, I was toast. It would emit static, I would turn the television off. I tried a few times but the result was always the same. I’ve never played through a single Silent Hill game.

The only really scary game I’ve ever finished was Fatal Frame 2. However, I played it with a friend, which made it much easier (even though she would literally throw the controller at me if something scary happened while she was playing).


Do you have any dealbreakers in games? What drives you crazy?

Female Protagonists

After my recent post about Tomb Raider, my friend Arielle asked about what makes a female character strong.

I started writing a response and decided I needed to do some more critical thinking on the matter, and do some more thorough analysis of female characters in games. I asked Twitter to name some games with female protagonists, and the responses were great! I decided to compile all the answers into a big list. I also went through every game I’ve ever played and added a bunch of other titles.

Here’s the list!

If you’re looking for a game where the playable protagonist (at least one of them, if there are multiple) is a female, it’s a good place to start. I’m still filling in information as I go, like release date, genre, I might add the platforms the games are available on. If you notice any games I’ve missed, or disagree with any of my classifications, feel free to comment here, hit me up on Twitter, or add a comment to the spreadsheet.

I’ve excluded certain types of games from the spreadsheet:

  • Games where you can make your character either gender. So, while Commander Shepard is an amazing female protagonist, the Mass Effect series is not included because whether you play as male or female, the character and story stays the same.
  • Games where the character model is just a skin. Like Mario Kart (or sports games) - you can play as Princess Peach, but whether you’re female, male, koopa, or ghost, really has no impact.
  • I’ve only included games where a female is the main protagonist (or one of them). In FFVII for example, Tifa, Aeris, and Yuffie are playable characters, but it is Cloud’s story.

I’m hoping to go somewhere with all this information, besides just having a list for reference (though I think it’s a pretty cool reference to have available).

Based on the quick analysis I’ve done of the games on this list I have played, or at least am very familiar with, I generally don’t have a problem with the way female protagonists are portrayed when they are the true protagonist. They drive the story forward by making decisions and acting on them. They sorta have to – they’re the leading characters. One exception I’m finding to this so far is the games like Bloodrayne or Lollipop Chainsaw. I don’t assume to be able to read the developers minds, but to me it seems clear that the leading characters were not made female to give women players something to relate to, or attract them to the game. They were made this way so straight male players could see TITS! And ASS! as they killed things. I watched a 2-minute gameplay trailer of Lollipop Chainsaw and I don’t think 5 seconds went by without me being able to see right up Juliet’s cheerleader skirt.

Anyway, for now I’ll keep picking away at the spreadsheet to make it more complete. I hope it’s useful for you and helps you discover some awesome new games to play.

Revolution 60 (Review)

Revolution 60 is the first release by developer Giant Spacekat, and it will be released for iPhone and iPad on July 24nd*, and ported to PC and Mac at some point. I’m generally not a fan of mobile games, however I’ve been listening to the Isometric Podcast, and hearing the head of development Brianna Wu talk about it got me interested. The fact that I sat on my couch this weekend, playing this game on a tiny little iPhone screen when I had my PC and all the consoles sitting within 10 feet of me certainly says something.

I’d call Revolution 60 a cinematic adventure-RPG. It takes inspiration from Heavy Rain and Mass Effect, taking advantage of Quick Time Event-like gameplay, heavy use of interactive cinematics, and a dialogue and decision system which impacts the events of the game. The story is set in the future, where an AI called Chessboard controls much of the government. An all-female team of operatives are sent on a mission to re-establish control of a space station, but things are not quite as they seem. You mostly play as the sharp-tongued assassin, Holiday.

Revolution 60 cinematic

R60 has a distinctive and fun visual style, and looks great on iPhone. The environments are very futuristic, but many elements also have a 60s vibe. The character costumes are more Spice Girls than space marines.

The gameplay could be broken down into three different categories.

Revolution 60 combat

First there’s the combat. The combat mechanics were very innovative. You fight on a grid, where you can move up, back and sideways, and attack your opponent with ranged, melee and special attacks. The combat was fast-paced, fun, and relied a lot on timing. As you win battles, you level up and can choose talents to make your character stronger (my tip: take the increased attack speed talents). As the game progresses the fights do get a lot harder.

Revolution 60 - Action sequences

There are also action events – these are like QTEs, but were much more forgiving in that they didn’t require super fast reaction times. They involved things like tracing your finger along a line or shape, or timing tapping the screen. These events happened both in combat, as part of special attacks, and out of combat to do things like climb ladders, jump over gaps, or use computer consoles. I thought these were a good way to add some extra action during the cinematic sequences.

R60 also featured a surprisingly deep decision and dialogue system. Rather than just good/evil ( or paragon/renegade), your decisions impact a number of different tracks. There’s the Minuete vs. Amelia dichotomy – which of your teammates will you side with? There’s the Professional vs. Rogue track – do follow your mission above all else, or do you make your own choices? You also get a Proficiency score, based on how well you do at the action events which can affect the choices available to you later in the game. I’ve only played through the once, but it sounds like there are many different endings to the game based on the decisions you make.

You also are occasionally given the opportunity to move throughout the station, which uses a simple touch to move mechanic. When in explore mode, the paths which would move the story forward were marked in green, while the optional areas were marked in yellow. I liked this idea. While travelling through the station you’re usually also talking to one of your crewmates on your communicator, which adds some interest to an otherwise uneventful and slow-moving part of the game.

Overall, everything was well done. The game looks beautiful, the controls are responsive, and for the most part the story and gameplay flowed well. The characters were well-developed, well acted, and full of sass, so the dialogue and cinematics kept me entertained. I really liked the intro tutorial and the approach taken to help new players learn the game. The tutorial taught the basics, but more information was given to you any time you got a load screen. This added increasing complexity to the game without overloading you with information right at the beginning.

I do have some complaints. There are a few places where you need to battle 3 or 4 enemies in a row. While I generally thought combat was engaging, having to face battles back-to-back without anything to break them up was frustrating and immersion breaking for me. It also drove home how repetitive Holiday’s killing blow animation was. My other complaint was how movement, and especially the camera worked. I often felt the camera was working against me, as I would walk out of a door and it would spin around so I was facing that same door again when I was given the option to move. It wasn’t obvious this was happening at first as the hallways and doors all looked quite similar. After walking out of a room, getting spun around and walking back into the exact same room a couple times, I just stopped exploring and followed the green path.

I enjoyed playing Revolution 60 more than I thought I would. The gameplay was interesting, and the story was well-told. The voice acting (particularly Minuete) and the music were real standouts. I finished the game on normal mode in about 2 hours, which unlocked the hardest difficulty – girlfriend mode! :) I’d like to play again and see how different choices affect the outcome, though I may wait for the PC port to do so.

The game costs $5.99 and I really like how they’ve done the purchase model. You can download the game from the app store for free and play the introduction, which is about 20 minutes or so of gameplay. If you like it, you can pay to unlock the whole game, if not, you’ve lost nothing. So I definitely recommend at least trying it out.

Rating: 8/10 – A beautifully designed cinematic game that offered a deeper gaming experience than I expected from a mobile game. Though I found a few aspects of the gameplay frustrating, for the most part it was a fun experience with a solid story and great characters.

*You may be wondering how I’ve played this game when it hasn’t been released yet. No, I didn’t get an advanced copy. iTunes made a mistake and added it to the app store before it was supposed to be released, and I managed to snag it before it was taken down. I didn’t even realize it wasn’t supposed to be there until the head of development mentioned it on her Twitter.

Contrast (Review)

Contrast was first released late in 2013, but just came out for the Xbox One on June 27th. As someone who prefers to play on the Xbox, but has found the lineup of available games lackluster (Do you like shooting? Racing? Neither? Sorry, can’t help you), I was excited to see something a little different appear on the console.

In Contrast you play the role of Dawn, an acrobat who can travel between the 3D corporeal world and the 2D shadow world. The only person who can see Dawn is Didi, a little girl trying to keep her family together. Dawn is a featureless protagonist – she has no real character of her own, she never speaks or emotes – though she’s the one you control, this is really Didi’s story.

Contrast Didi and Dawn

The gameplay revolves around Dawn’s ability to shift into the shadows, using them to get to places that would otherwise be unreachable. As the game progresses, you also manipulate lights and objects in the real world in order to create your own shadow paths.  The mechanics are simple, and the few times I ran into trouble it was due to not understanding how the game physics worked. For example, the first time I encountered a box I could pick up and move I assumed I had to put it in front of a light source to create a shadow. Actually, I was able to pick up the box and shift into the shadows with at, turning it from a 3D object to a 2D one. I liked the idea here, but the execution was not great. There were a lot of issues with camera angles, collision, sluggish controls, and getting stuck. Luckily none of these were game breaking – I could usually get unstuck by shifting in and out or dashing – but it was a major source of annoyance. Based on other reviews, these bugs are not unique to the Xbox One port.

Dawn and Didi are the only characters you see clearly, the rest appear to you only as silhouettes against brightly lit walls. This led to one of the more compelling parts of the game. You’d see and hear a vignette play out and traverse the character’s moving shadows to get where you needed to go. Though these were the least challenging platforming parts of the game, I enjoyed them the most as they really married the gameplay and story together.

Contrast Shadows

The story is simple and the characters are quite trite. Didi’s father Johnny is a hustler who’s just not very good at hustling. Because of this, he’s been kicked out by Didi’s mother Kat, who gets portrayed as mentally unstable when it comes to Johnny. Through the game Didi and Dawn are basically going around fixing Johnny’s mistakes to make sure his latest scheme works and they can be a big, happy family who can afford to pay their rent again.

Contrast has some good ideas and appealing designs, but it feels like a shadow of what it could have been. The game takes place in the 1920′s Paris jazz age and has some lovely aesthetics. There is also some beautiful music featured during certain scenes, but as you’re actually playing the game feels silent and empty. Shadows aren’t too exciting to look at and Act I in particular has almost no background music or ambient sound, which makes it feel unfinished. The whole shadow and light theme is a great idea, but not enough is done with it. The puzzles get repetitive by the end of the game. Many questions are raised – who is Dawn? why can she turn into a shadow? what is the shadow world? but few are answered. Near the end of the game you can find collectibles which reference these things, but don’t give any real insight.

 Rating: 5/10 – The game looks nice and has its charms – a scene where you participate in a shadow puppet theater stands out as the highlight – but is marred by glitches, poor controls, and lack of explanation. Gameplay became repetitive even though it only lasted about 4 hours. On the bright side, if you love achievements this game showers you with them. I earned 840 without trying to be a completionist.

Steam Stash: Part 2

The Steam Summer Sale is over. Thank goodness. Things were starting to get out of hand. I ended up buying 17 games, but on the bright side I only spent $52. Final games take:

Blackwell Bundle (4 games)
Don’t Starve
Deadlight
Monaco
Prison Architect
Shadowrun Returns
Spelunky
The Swapper
Syberia 1 & 2
System Shock 2
Talisman
To the Moon
Warlock – Master of the Arcane

I talked about a few that I had a chance to play before. Here are some thoughts on others I’ve dedicated some time too.

Blackwell Legacy & Blackwell Unbound

The Blackwell games are a series of old school point-and-click adventure games first released in 2006. They revolve around a family of mediums, the Blackwells, and their ghostly helper, Joey. Their job is to help ghosts that are stuck on this plane of existence to realize they are dead and move on. I’m actually surprised I had never played any of these before, since I’m a big fan of point and click adventures, despite most of them being full of completely illogical solutions to problems.

In Blackwell Legacy you play as Rosangela who, at the start of the game, has no idea she’s a medium. So the game is not only about helping ghosts come to terms with their deaths but also about Rosangela coming to terms with seeing dead people and having Joey be a permanent fixture in her life. I enjoyed the game overall, but my biggest problem was with Rosangela. She was very socially anxious, and I didn’t like playing as her. This did get better throughout the game though.

Blackwell Unbound is the second game in the series, but is a prequel. In this game you play Rosangela’s aunt Lauren, who I liked a lot more. She was fiery, but also (after a life of having to solve the problems of ghosts) very jaded. Her relationship with Joey had been established already so there was some good back and forth between the two of them, whereas in Legacy Joey and Rosangela has just met and things were awkward. Unbound is dragged down a bit by some terrible voice acting in a few supporting roles though (seriously, young people pretending to be old people just doesn’t work). Otherwise, it was an enjoyable adventure game with a fine narrative and good dialogue. I’m looking forward to playing the next games in the series.

Monaco

I should really read before I buy, I didn’t realize this was a co-op only game. I spent some time in a lobby waiting for a group to form, then played a level and had to wait in another lobby. That ended my Monaco experience. Need to get some friends to play with if I’m going to try this again.

Shadowrun Returns

Shadowrun is an isometric RPG (like Baldur’s Gate), but it has a cyberpunk theme. I’ve only put in an hour or two so far, but I’ve had a lot of fun with it. What I’ve seen of the story is intriguing. The main character is a shadow runner – a kind of unofficial investigator/contractor/get shit done whatever the means type. You’ve been hired by your now dead ex-partner to solve his murder. The game so far is quite linear, which I don’t have a problem with. There are some optional quests but they don’t distract too much from the main storyline. The talent/skill system is fairly straightforward, but the class system is still a mystery to me. I chose to be a shaman, but so far I have no idea what it is that makes me a shaman. I’ve never cast a spell or anything.

The combat is tactical turn-based, and immediately reminded me of XCOM. So far I’m really liking the game, I will definitely finish it and may pick up the next campaign as well.

Spelunky

This is an action-adventure platformer and I didn’t like it at all. It just seems like a really bad port. Trying to get a good resolution to play in windowed mode was an exercise in futility. I got stuck on the character selection screen and wasn’t able to select a character for a while. When I finally got in I found that playing this with a keyboard is awful and the default controls seems designed to make me angry.

Just when I think I’m turning into a PC gamer, something like this happens to bring me back to my console-loving reality.

A lot of people whose opinions about games I respect like this game, so I’d suggest picking it up for a console and skipping the PC version.

To The Moon

To the Moon is a narrative-based Indie game. The premise is about granting dying wishes to people by creating new memories for them. Two doctors, Rosalene and Watts arrive at the house of Johnny, the dying man who wants to go to the moon. They need to traverse his memories back to the time he was a child in order to implant the wish to go to the moon, with the assumption that his brain would then create those memories and he could die happy.

I had heard nothing but good things about this game. For me, good story is the basis of a good game (at least for an adventure or role-playing game - Rayman doesn’t need a good story). Also, I’m a sucker for quirky indie games. Unfortunately, I hated this game. Let me tell you why.

Johnny’s story, as seen by the doctors in his memories was actually quite poignant and moving. It dealt with all kinds of interesting themes like old age, mental health, regret, memory, love, secrets. And it dealt with them all fairly well. So what was the problem? It was the doctors. Johnny’s memories on their own were a lovely story experience, but then we have these annoying doctors, cracking jokes, making comments, being jaded. Dr. Watts especially was a dick. They just didn’t shut the fuck up. Reading their dialogue got old really quick.

Though the doctors were the most egregious problem they weren’t the only one. The controls were bad. Sometimes clicking an object would move you to it, sometimes it wouldn’t. The cursor placement was weird. Of course, controls weren’t a huge deal since 90% of the game was just clicking though dialogue. I don’t have a problem with games being more about narrative than gameplay, but in this case I felt that watching this like a movie would have been move rewarding than having to move and click. There are completely inconsequential tile flipping puzzles that you need to do to travel from memory to memory. Near the end of the game I guess the developers felt like they needed to jam some gameplay in and there was a short frogger-like shooting sequence which seemed entirely out of place. Also, the game had an unhealthy preoccupation with roadkill.

If they could have told Johnny’s story without the annoying doctors making quips all the way through, I’m sure I would have liked this game more. As it was, I was just wanting it to end from about the 2 hour mark onward. There is a sequel planned, but it centers around those same two doctors, so I’ll be skipping it.