Friday, December 28, 2012

I Really Don't Like The Adventure Time Game

WayForward, you have let me down.

The Adventure Time game, on first glance, practically screamed things I would appreciate. I felt like the last fan of Zelda II in the world, and here was one that was embraced by hands-down my favorite cartoon ever, Adventure Time. How could this go wrong? Beautifully drawn sprites, kickin' music, and a plot that would crack me up.

I don't think it did any of these right.

Core combat felt annoying from the get go, by forcing me to use bareknuckles to fight with. With an absurdly short range, I slipped frequently into enemies, taking more damage and occasionally knocking me into the too-frequent pits scattered everywhere about. Thank god, I finally got Scarlett, Finn's sword, which gave me bonus range, but only provided I had more than one heart (four hits). Which makes a lot of sense, right? Only after you take a lot of damage do you lose your ability to attack from safety.

The annoyance of the clunky and frustrating combat is assuaged by a plentiful amount of healing items, but they're dropped at an absurd rate. After a few combats, you've got more apples than a produce store, and the less-useless powerups go unused as you tank-and-potion your way through. There's a pseudo Earthbound-like aspect of combining condiments with food, but neither is especially useful, convenient, or interesting. Earthbound did the same thing over a decade ago, and it was automatic and fit with the RPG system. AT does neither of these things.

I could forgive annoying combat with a stronger compilation of features, but HIKWYSOG borrows all of the worst aspects of Zelda II and removes all of the compelling points. There's overworld random encounters, but you can't run from them, there is no experience or level progression to grind, and all they do is give you more items, clogging your inventory with a needless amount. Every important landmark has a small level between it, but the quests in this game are aimed almost entirely at the 'fetch' variety.

In every zone you have to run errands before you can enter the dungeon, and not in a fun way, but in an obnoxious way. Collect three of something by talking to famous Adventure Time cast members, then run around and talk to someone they tell you to talk to. Talk to Lemongrab, talk to the three people in the area, talk to the Gravedigger, talk to the Nut King, talk to Mr. the time you're done, you've given up on genuinely fighting the enemies before you instead of jumping over them or running past. There is no fast travel at all. You have to run everywhere. There's a map, but it tells you only that there are landmarks there, not what they are or even where travel locations are.

With the 2d combat, the dungeons had a lot of things they could play with, but there's practically nothing there. Most of the dungeons can be cleared in about ten minutes, none of the bosses are especially creative, and it's not so much a 'puzzle' as it is 'hit button, return to previous room.'

Again, all of these things could be forgiven for being a huge chore, but the writing just is...lacking. Not only does it feel oddly out of place compared to Adventure Time, there's no writing charm either. None of the gags made me crack up laughing like the show frequently does, instead most of them are just kind of cute. They also have this odd habit of making a storyline reason for Jake to learn a power, but Finn learns something like the downthrust (Zelda II, again) out of opening a chest. The consistency from the show vanished.

Additionally, the lengths the game goes to put characters into the game starts to have serious dissonance with the show to anyone, not just the hardcore. The most egregious example of this is Earl of Lemongrab - in the show, there's no episode where he shows up that people like him. He only takes over after Princess Bubblegum no longer can be the Princess. So then why does she offhandedly mention that Lemongrab is running the investigation? And further, the bad guy is the Ice King, but he's been in the same category as Bowser as 'humorous once-bad guy turned mild annoyance,' so how am I expected to take him seriously as a villain? And why are Finn and Jake trying to fight him about their garbage? They handwave it as 'It's Adventure Time', but it feels out of place with the writing really missing the AT justifications. I don't understand how Pendelton Ward could have participated in this when they're so haphazard with the canon.

The game just feels so soulless, in every way. The visuals are nice, even if many events happen with a fade-out-fade-in rather than an animation, and the music is great, but everything else just misses the mark. The combat is boring, the dungeons are brainless, the writing can't even make you smile, the plot is threadbare, and the tenuous connections to the show barely exist.

It feels like this was not a labor of love from WayFoward, but instead from their publisher at Cartoon Network Interactive. As though the game was a product that a machine turned out after the entire series and a cartridge of Zelda II was dumped into it - wearing a mask, waving its wobbly arms, spouting "butts" and "mathematical!", begging you to mistake it for the real thing. No love was put into the game, and it shows horribly. I was hoping something with this much potential would be impressive, but it fails in every way it can.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Killing is Harmless Pseudo-Review

When Fight Club landed in 1999, it was glanced over, dismissed by reviewers, and overall mostly ignored as a confusing mess of a movie. But it resonated with a very large group of moviegoers - since then, it's become a cornerstone of that time period, something that touched a very raw nerve with the men of the 90s. It dealt with a lot of very touchy issues and, perhaps more importantly, never specifically said if they were right or wrong, just that some people handled it in different ways. Many critics who hated the movie called it 'facist', among other things, critically missing the point (in my opinion anyway, as one of those people who was strongly affected by the film).

The videogame industry has been riding the coattails of the immensely successful modern military shooter for what feels like forever. What is about five years in game industry years? It feels like twice that. And now, when all but the diehards have just about gotten exhausted of the genre, we have the video game industry's Fight Club. An intense, uncomfortable, shocking, raw, disruptive game that doesn't gut the tropes we have gotten used to, as much as it exposes them, asks questions, then walks away and leaves them to you.

And, similarly, there is a strong negativity to the game - calling it hypocritical for its dissonant 'a shooter that hates the genre,' or even just dismissing it as 'just a shooter'. With the utmost respect, I can't describe how much I disagree. Spec Ops, to me, is a very important game (the details of my experience I still have yet to publish here). It's a game that speaks to me as someone who liked all the Modern Warfare games, who has grown a bit tired of the military shooters, and puts a very scary, humanizing spin on it. It's not just the big moment that everyone gets surprised by - it's the hallucinations, the disorienting amount of plot shifts, the constant sensation of 'this is wrong,' the fact that by the end, you hate Walker for everything he made you do. For me, it's not even a shooter - it's a horror game, one that suckers you into thinking it's a Call of Duty clone before yanking the mask off.

So what would happen if you had someone who was strongly affected by the game sit down and analyze literally everything in it? You get Killing is Harmless, by Brendan Keogh.

I'm going to just warn from the getgo that this is not the book for everyone. In fact, if you don't know what Spec Ops even is, and are uninterested from the description I just gave you, I don't even think you'll get anything out of it. But, if you played and were as deeply shaken by it as I was, or even just are curious why so many people were so strongly affected, this is worth your $3.

The strengths are obvious - Brendan is a talented writer, and he was deeply shaken by Spec Ops. It's a match made in heaven to have him write a novel-length analysis about everything that is this game. And he's not the kind of person like Yahtzee who has a long, deep-seated hatred of military shooters. Brendan speaks as someone who gleefully loved Modern Warfare 3, even when (in his own words) he had no idea why. His turn of phrase is always entertaining and engaging, and he breaks up the reading of Spec Ops with frequent (but very relevant) asides and comments on similar events, or notes how infrequently other games have events such as the primary characters cracking under pressure and begin infighting.

He occasionally resorts to over-repetition when returning to advancing the game ("Moving on," "We approach..." "We continue..." "We enter..."), but these are minor nitpicks. His writing style is always entertaining and stays focused enough to get the important message home without tiring you of the topic. Almost all of Chapter Eight is discussion about the white phosphorous strike, but it is smartly structured and never feels over long.

Brendan's book is to 'analyze everything' in Spec Ops, and 'analyze everything' he does, even a stop sign at the very beginning and Walker's own name are both foreboding and ominous. That is, honestly, the thing that will drive some people away from Killing is Harmless. Extra Credits said, in their two-parter, that some of the plot structure, fourth wall breaking, and psychological aspects will pull many people out of Spec Ops, as their suspension of disbelief is broken. Brendan, however, seems to revel in it, even when he otherwise shouldn't. Darius Kazemi's review most strongly criticizes this, with a moment where Radioman blames all the violence on video games, and Brendan admits it's unfunny and forced, yet approves of it for being right.

And yet, it's very difficult to feel like the book is worse off for it. Sure, I don't agree that the crows are symbolic, I don't agree that the stop sign is that important, and there's plenty of times where I thought to myself, "You're overreading a bit here, Brendan." But I can't bring myself to dislike the book. It is, at its core, an analysis both on the game, and the man Brendan himself. It's even in the foreward - "Ultimately, this is an act of interpretation." He wants you to understand what he has interpreted from Spec Ops.

I would not consider a reading of Fight Club bad if it makes a lot of statements and suggests things about the movie I do not disagree with. Even the director said in the commentary, "You'll notice how Tyler says the same thing as the therapist earlier in the movie, 'I look around and I see a lot of men...', etc." I didn't think there was anything to that, except maybe that a script/screenplay writer's style of speech coming through. Would I like the movie less now knowing that? Or any of the actors? Or any other writer? Not at all. Fight Club asked a lot of questions, and gave you very little answers. It played with the concepts of nihilism and anti-consumerism, then simply ended the movie. Was Tyler evil? Was the narrator? Maybe, but maybe not. Similarly, Spec Ops is not interested in telling you the answer - it wants to ask you questions it does not have an answer for. Killing is Harmless is Brendan's book about his answers, not everyone's.

Killing is Harmless had a goal of critcally reading Spec Ops, top to bottom. And that's what it did - even when I disagree, it helped me (as it may help you) to understand the game itself more. Even when the book is overreaching or wrong in whatever he has conceived, even when it misses things I believe (such as how Extra Credits says it used the aged gunplay to give the player a sense of 'wrongness' early on), even when the book is probably just objectively wrong, and you will find these moments....Brendan was successful in his goal.